Car Culture: Driving assist can enable bad habits
I just tested a relatively new technology that I’m terming “texting assist,” which helps drivers avoid crashing their cars while texting and driving.
Well, that’s misleading and I apologize. The name of the technology is “lane keep assist” or “lane departure warning,” and it’s available on a majority of car brands, and works like this: A camera mounted in front of the rear view mirror recognizes the center and side lane divider lines and alerts the driver when a car has wandered over one of the two lines. Some systems tug on the steering of the car to encourage the driver to steer back into the lane. It’s not a perfect system — a lot of roads have poorly marked lines, so the systems don’t work on those roads.
Of course, I know that in Michigan it is against the law to text while driving. National studies have shown that distracted driving accounts for 16 percent of crashes, compared to about 3 percent for speeding.
These numbers come from Washington Times managing editor Richard Diamond, who runs a website called TheNewspaper.com, and analyzes crash data. He adds the number of tickets written for violating the texting-while-driving law is far less than a 10th of those issued for speeding, depending upon what data you find. Why? Speed laws are enforced simply by pulling the trigger of a radar gun. Speeding, we’ve been taught since birth, is anti-social behavior. Texting is the opposite — today it’s the very core of social behavior. So is video chat. Facebook messaging. Tweeting.
AT&T research from last spring reveals that almost two-thirds of all smartphone users text on the road. Four out of 10 smartphone users engage social media while driving, and three connect to the internet to surf, and a 10 percent make videos.
Car enthusiasts have always argued that setting speed limits too low creates boredom, perhaps the kind that encourages smartphone use today. Back in the 1980s when the national speed limit was 55 miles per hour, I used to write letters to a girlfriend while I was driving cross-country, using a pen and a pilot’s knee-board as a writing surface. Back then it was common to see commuters reading newspapers and books on the freeway; applying makeup remains a task some have mastered during morning rush hour.
Recently I was driving a car with a particularly active “lane-keep assist” system, and my phone ping’ed me with a notice that a text had arrived, and I turned it on to read it. Guilty, and I’ve done it before. However, this time the text was engaging and I did more than glance at it, I read the whole sentence. During this time, the lane-keep assist system alerted me that the car was wandering over the line.
So it dawned on me that lane-keep assist was almost perfect for encouraging drivers to text or otherwise engage a smartphone. The only instance I could recall ever needing technology to keep me from wandering off a road in a vehicle was when I was driving an old van in the 1980s, trailering a racing car across Wisconsin late one night, the van having particularly sloppy steering and tires with the grip of olive oil.
In fact, I’m not sure I have found a real use for lane-keep assist other than texting. The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) says that lane-keep assist on its own does not reduce accidents, and it works best paired with automatic emergency braking systems. We get it now because it’s available.
A level up from mere warnings are independent mitigation systems, known as ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assist Systems, and they will likely be here before fully autonomous cars arrive. Coming soonest will be an evolution of lane-keep assist that will cause the car to automatically change lanes, to overtake or avoid a collision where the vehicle cannot stop.
Autonomous cars are scheduled for 2020 says Ford CEO Mark Fields, while Tesla honcho Elon Musk says 2023 is when he expects them. So as semi-autonomous cars enter the national fleet of passenger cars first, we are training drivers to do other tasks than drive on roads. For example, Volkswagen’s new campaign for its App-Connect system shows television actors chatting and planning parties while driving. Certainly not anti-social. As we found with prohibition in the 1920s, it’s almost impossible to enforce any law against a behavior that’s socially acceptable.
One of the reasons that autonomous cars appeal to government safety agencies is the promise of dramatic reductions in fatal crashes. An autonomous car also promises that drivers can do all sorts of other tasks while behind the “wheel,” if there still is one. But the partial technologies helping to get cars to that stage of automatic driving may just encourage more dangerous driving.