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Are Car Safety Features Too Distracting For Drivers?

Vibrating Steering WheelUntil driver error is eliminated, the flashing lights, annoying beeping sounds and vibrating steering wheels that are part of car warning systems won’t likely go away.

Unless you disconnect them, or at least one of them, as Constance Costas did with the “curb detector” on her 2008 Infiniti EX35 that would beep when she was sitting at a parking light with a median strip a foot away.

Parallel parking became a “ringing-dinging affair,” she says, as the Infiniti thought “too close” was three feet away.

“Ridiculous,” Costas says. “I hope car makers stop with the buzzers and whistles. They accomplish nothing.”

Alerting drivers to hazards can help avoid accidents, but such technological improvements could also make drivers lazier and more distracted as cars take over more duties that were previously left to the driver.

A curb alert may not offer much protection, but most safety features are meant to prevent deadly accidents.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, reported in a study last year that crash avoidance systems introduced in luxury vehicles could cut crashes substantially. HLDI estimated that if all vehicles were equipped with forward collision warning, lane departure warning, side view assist, and adaptive headlights, 1.9 million crashes — including one in three fatal crashes, could potentially be prevented or mitigated if the systems worked perfectly.

It also found that claims under property damage liability coverage were filed about 25% less often for Volvo XC60s equipped with a low-speed forward collision avoidance system than for similar SUVs without it.

Infinitis and other cars have a safety feature that can save lives — rear view cameras that can not only make backing out of a parking space easier, but more importantly can show a child playing behind the car in the driveway.

A self-parking feature might be low on the list of safety features that add to the beeping sounds inside a car, though it’s unlikely that too many systems would be making warning sounds all at the same time, says Michael O’Shea, CEO of Abalta Technologies, which develops software for mobile devices that can talk to cars.

“If you’re comfortable parking you don’t really need all of this stuff,” says O’Shea, who supports haptic feedback and other safety technologies.

Internet access in a car could be distracting enough, but car makers try to design their cars so that warning systems don’t compete with each other for a driver’s attention and become a distraction, he says.

Here are some of the latest safety warning systems:

  • Blind-spot monitors have mirrors that move, light up and beep when a car is approaching from the side. The sound warning on the Mazda and other cars can be turned off in heavy traffic, leaving the warning lights on the mirrors in a driver’s peripheral vision.
  • Cross-traffic alerts use radar to spot cars coming from the side and ahead, and alert drivers with indicator lights on outside mirrors and sounds.
  • Lane-departure warnings use haptic feedback on steering wheels and rearview mirror monitor lane markings to alert you if the car strays out of its lane. They can also give resistance in the steering wheel if the driver attempts to make a lane change without signaling, O’Shea says. 

If too many warning sounds, lights and messages on the dashboard appear at the same time, it might make a driver take their eyes off the road and focus on the dashboard and wonder what’s going on with all of it, he says.

“All these bells and buzzers and flashing lights and all that — at some point you can really tune that off, or turn it off and override it,” O’Shea says.

One technology that’s coming that driver’s probably won’t want to turn off is called Vehicle to Vehicle communication, or V2V. Cars will be able to talk to each other and exchange data on position, speed and location and sense hazards within 360 degrees. They can calculate risks, issue driver warnings or take pre-emptive actions to avoid crashes. Your car will know an accident is about to happen before you do.

Since most new warning systems are expensive and start off in luxury cars, it can take decades before they’re available in the cheapest new cars, let along all vehicles on the road.

The HLDI found that it typically takes three decades for a promising safety feature spread through a fleet after introduced in a few luxury cars. It will take at least that long before 95% of cars on the road could have a given feature that has become standard equipment or was offered as an option, it found. Not everyone replaces their old car as soon as new safety features come out.

It won’t be until 2016 that 95% of all registered vehicles could have frontal airbags, even though they were added in meaningful numbers in the mid-1980s. Forward collision warning systems could take until 2049 to be in 95% of registered vehicles, HDLI says.

Whenever drivers do get such safety features in their cars, the bad news is that they may not lower insurance costs as immediate discounts, though they could lower premiums over time if a driver has fewer accidents.

Cristofer Pereyra, a Farmers Insurance agent in Phoenix, says his company doesn’t offer specific discounts for having such safety devices. However, its complex rating program uses a car’s vehicle identification number and accounts for the specific safety features and ratings of each vehicle, which is why premiums vary by vehicle, Pereyra says.