Getting smart about auto safety

Deborah A.P. Hersman

Nearly a century ago, auto pioneer Henry Ford said, “The remains of the old must be decently laid away; the path of the new prepared. That is the difference between revolution and progress.”

It was a bold statement in 1922, and the “old” was not old at all. Ford had just revolutionized how Americans traveled. But then Ford was talking about how to make what was once considered impossible even more extraordinary.

Today, manufacturers are in an arms race to be as cutting edge as possible. Automakers have lived out Ford’s vision of constant progress responding to consumers and designing better vehicles. Our cars are Wi-Fi enabled and you don’t need a key to turn them on.

But what will constitute the revolution Ford called for? Are we focused on the wrong advances? What about safety?

Car crashes remain a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and approximately 90 percent of fatalities are caused by human error. We become fatigued, are distracted or misjudge how much time we have to pass. Every year 10,000 people die in alcohol-impaired crashes — one third of our highway fatalities. Is the most important development in the car of tomorrow to entertain us with connectivity or keep us from killing ourselves and others?

Some safety technologies have been around for years: anti-lock braking, electronic stability control, air bags and energy-absorbing interiors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates these features collectively saved more than 600,000 lives from 1960 to 2012 — nearly the entire population of Detroit.

But that was a 52-year evolution. In the last decade, progress has been so fast that many drivers are unaware of what cars can do. Vehicles have dozens of technologies to aid the driver: drowsiness alerts, lane departure warnings, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring — and more.

Our cars are smart and getting smarter all the time. It is time we get smart too. Some semi-autonomous features allow our vehicles to steer themselves, automatically brake for hazards and adjust speed for traffic conditions. But University of Iowa research finds the majority of drivers don’t know how the features work, and 40 percent say their vehicles have behaved in a confusing or unexpected way. Manufacturers will introduce more of these potentially lifesaving technologies into the fleet at the upcoming North American International Auto Show. When your car starts talking to you, will you be ready to listen?

We are on the cusp of truly unbelievable things. Embrace today’s progress. Be ready for the next frontier. These technologies are stepping stones to our inevitable transition from a driving to a riding culture.

Deborah A.P. Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council.