Are Vehicle Safety Systems Worth It?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that 37,461 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, and 3,450 people died because of distracted driving in the same year. With the increasing number of safety systems making their way into modern vehicles, are they helping to reduce those numbers? Or are they instead making drivers worse and more dangerous?

distracted highway driving safety systems

In 1908, two psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, developed the Yerkes-Dodson law. The law states that an individual’s performance increases with mental or physiological arousal, but only to a point. With too much arousal, performance begins to dwindle, and with too little arousal, performance can almost be non-existent. This means that even though you’re driving down a clear road in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably just as likely to drive as badly as when you’re lost in a major city’s heavy rush hour traffic.

Where does this play in for drivers? Well, with more and more safety nannies in cars, drivers may stop actually paying attention to the road. They begin relying on these systems more and lose the level of alertness they should have while they’re behind the wheel. But perhaps these systems are working for the better, reducing incidents on the road.

According to recent research, NHTSA says that vehicles of the current model year are the safest on U.S. roads. The study evaluated fatal crashes that involved passenger cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs. It found that, compared to new vehicles, a higher proportion of deaths occurred within older vehicles. Fifty-five percent of occupants were fatally injured in vehicles from model year 1984 and older, while 26 percent of occupants suffered fatal injuries in model year 2013–2017 vehicles.

In 2017, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) on the effectiveness of certain safety systems found that “lane departure warning lowers rates of single-vehicle and head-on crashes of all severities by 11 percent and lowers the rates of injury crashes of the same types by 21 percent.” It also found that blind spot detection lowered the rate of lane change crashes by 14 percent and lane change crashes with injuries by 23 percent.

However, these safety assists have to be activated in order to be effective. Many drivers may be behind the wheel of vehicles with these warning systems, but they might turn them off because of annoyance. The systems beep, flash lights on the instrument panel, vibrate seats and the steering wheel, and hit the brakes automatically. For a driver who is actually paying attention to the road and isn’t busy texting their buddy about drinks later, the safety nannies can become a nuisance. (“There was no need to slam on the brakes as that car drove in front of me, car!”) The technologies kill some of the fun that many drivers enjoy.

For other drivers, the assists are helpful, especially if they consider driving a chore. But as the Yerkes-Dodson law suggests, these drivers can become too complacent behind the wheel when they rely on the technologies too much.

But all of these safety systems lead up to what the future is sure to be at some point: autonomous automobiles. We can only hope that they help make the road a safer place.

What are some of the modern safety systems?

Backup camera
Typically projected onto the infotainment screen on your dash, a backup camera provides you with a clear view of everything behind you. Some systems will even display lines that curve as you turn the steering wheel.

Blind spot detection
This system warns you when there’s a vehicle in your blind spot so that you don’t have to turn your head and check for yourself (even though you still should).

Lane departure warning
When you let your vehicle drift over lane markings, this system will alert you.

Lane keeping assist
When you don’t pay attention to that lane departure warning, lane keeping assist will automatically steer your car back into your lane.

Lane centering assist
If you tend to wander back and forth in your lane, this system provides continual steering input to help keep your vehicle centered in between the lines.

Automatic braking
This system applies the brakes for you if it detects that a forward collision is imminent.

Rear automatic braking
When backing up, this system applies the brakes for you if it detects an oncoming vehicle to prevent a rear collision.

Pedestrian automatic emergency braking
If a person is about to walk in front of your vehicle, this system alerts you and applies the brakes.

Rear cross-traffic alert
This system lets you know whenever an oncoming vehicle or object is approaching outside of your backup camera’s view.

Forward collision warning
Even though you should be paying attention what’s in front of you anyway, this system detects and warns you of potential forward collisions.

Adaptive cruise control
After setting a following distance, this system accelerates and decelerates your vehicle. If the car in front of you slows down, your car will, too.

Traffic jam assist
When you’re stuck in heavy traffic, this system will control your speed and brakes to match the flow with traffic. It also centers your vehicle in the lane, even through curves.

Highway pilot
After determining a following distance, this system accelerates and brakes your vehicle and maintains your lane position.

Adaptive lighting
This system momentarily switches your high-beams to low-beams when another vehicle is approaching, then changes them back after it’s passed.

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