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Safety systems come with driver overconfidence

It’s hard to believe that car systems designed to make driving safer and easier are placing drivers in danger, but a new study by the AAA Foundation finds this is the case. Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping-assist technologies lull drivers into letting their guard down, which puts them at greater risk of crashing, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found.

When used correctly, or the way they are designed to be used, the technologies can make driving safer. But the study found drivers place too much trust in the systems. The study found drivers texting and even reading books while driving, expecting the technologies to keep their vehicle in the center of the lane and with a safe distance from traffic in front of them.

Adaptive cruise control maintains a safe distance between vehicles on the highway by automatically accelerating or slowing down without the driver’s help. Lane-keeping assist technology helps drivers stay in their lane by gently tugging the wheel when the car starts to drift. But both systems still require the driver to remain alert and keep their hands on the wheel.

“We’re definitely trying to reiterate to drivers that these systems are merely support systems and their role is to remain alert and attentive,” said Bill Horrey, leader of the AAA Foundation’s Traffic Research Group and project manager on the study.

The results underscore the depths of the safety challenges faced by the auto industry as it continues its slow transition from traditional vehicles to self-driving cars. Evidence increasingly suggests that drivers often don’t properly use or understand partially automated systems.

The AAA study concluded that those two systems make drivers “nearly twice as likely to engage in distracted driving” as drivers who aren’t using them. Interestingly, drivers who aren’t as familiar with the systems are less likely to drive distracted while using them, according to AAA.

The study doesn’t mean the systems are inherently dangerous, but it suggests that the auto industry must do a better job of educating drivers about the limitations of these systems, which cannot make sophisticated decisions on the road.

The conclusions of this study are not unexpected. Remember when anti-lock brakes were first introduced? Many drivers drove faster, relying too much on the expectation that this technology would keep them safe while driving too fast for conditions. That was an unexpected consequence to what was designed to be a safety feature that could significantly reduce crashes. Maybe driving was safer 50 years ago when we had to do everything ourselves, including shifting gears by using a clutch, and stopping on slippery roads by “pumping” the brakes.

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