High-technology trends causing auto safety conundrum

It is a safety riddle that neither the government nor the private sector is figuring out very well. As high-tech gadgets for cars proliferate and consequently increase the opportunity for accidents, collision avoidance systems and other advanced equipment is being developed to keep drivers out of harm's way. But are the advanced safety systems a help or hindrance?

In a 107 page report critical of how the federal Department of Transportation handles the onrush of advanced technology for drivers and the car itself, the Government Accountability Office said technology-based trends alternatively present an opportunity to reduce highway fatality rates and a threat that, if not countered, may result in increased fatalities.

The bad news is that from now through 2015, more complex devices will be developed for use in cars. The advanced and rapid evolution of complex products including new applications and detailed screens will increase driver distractions, the GAO said.  This includes portable devices such as cell phones with text messaging and more advanced features as well as MP3 players the report stated.

Now and in the future, teens may have the highest risks, the GAO stated. A recent National Highway Transportation Safety Administration-sponsored study noted that cell phone use is increasing, cited findings that younger, and in some cases novice, drivers are "leading the way" in using various new devices and that the combination of distraction and lack of "fully developed driving skills" suggests accelerating risks for this group, the GAO stated. 

Additionally, driver use of portable phones with touch screens can now be facilitated with dashboard holders with swivel mounts for landscape and portrait viewing. Motorcycle helmet equipment is also now available to facilitate phoning while riding. Finally, wireless Internet is becoming available in cars that will become "a moving WiFi hotspot with Internet access." From 2015 through 2020, problems could increase if young drivers continue texting and middle-aged drivers continue voice calling as they age and if new cohorts of teen drivers text or use newer complex devices at levels similar to or higher than today's teens, the GAO stated.

According to NHTSA, 19 states and the District of Columbia have implemented cell phone bans. One objective of further research could be to describe whether states with cell bans are using, encouraging, or considering for new technologies the future, such as devices that could help police detect ongoing calls in passing cars or in-car equipment to track, record, and report-to either parents or police-driver use of portable phone use, the GAO stated.

The good news is that a number of systems are being developed - and some are being deployed in higher-end cars - that promise to help drivers avoid problems.

For example, the Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance System (CICAS), is a DOT-sponsored effort that could help reduce accidents by alerting drivers when they or other vehicles are projected to violate traffic control devices and telling drivers about potential problems at intersections - such as some one possibly running a red light.

  • CICAS consists of:
  • Vehicle-based technologies and systems-sensors, processors, and driver interfaces within each vehicle
  • Infrastructure-based technologies and systems-roadside sensors and processors to detect vehicles and identify hazards and signal systems, messaging signs, and/or other interfaces to communicate various warnings to drivers
  • Communications systems-dedicated short-range communications to communicate warnings and data between the infrastructure and equipped vehicles

According to the DOT, intersection-related crashes take a heavy toll on lives, productivity, and the economy. In 2003 alone, 8,569 people died and more than 1.4 million suffered injuries as a result of intersection-related crashes. CICAS Intelligent intersection systems offer a significant opportunity to improve safety by enhancing driver decision-making at intersections that will help drivers avoid crashes, the DOT stated. 

Other overarching research systems being developed include the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) and the Effectiveness of Vehicle Safety Communications Applications (EVSCA) programs. EVSCA is a NHTSA program to evaluate whether the effectiveness of vehicle-to-vehicle communications (either alone or in combination with stand-alone crash-avoidance technologies) could benefit from technologies allowing the vehicle to communicate with roadside or other sensors. Both programs are designing technologies to alert drivers to hazards and decrease fatality rates, the GAO stated.

The conundrum arises from the fact that such systems can cause problems too. For example, older drivers may be helped by crash avoidance technologies such as backup warning systems and night vision assistance but those systems would enhance mobility of older drivers, and "might encourage older adults to continue driving well beyond when they would ordinarily cease operating vehicles," thus raising risks, the GAO said.  This fact is important as by 2025, the annual number of road fatalities for older drivers may be double what it was in 2005. The main reason for the projected increase is that the first members of the baby boom generation will reach their  65th birthday in 2011, and the number and percentage of Americans older than 65 will steadily increase for several years, the GAO said.

 Crash avoidance technologies could mitigate negative effects of drivers using cell phones or other distracting devices but drivers using a portable touch-screen phone and examining a dashboard screen image at the same time could be further distracted.  Such systems could also create complacency that could exacerbate dangers. Representatives of the automobile industry have said that consumer training in the use of new technologies could be key to maximizing safety benefits, the GAO stated.

Last year the National Institute of Standards and Technology said that two car collision warning systems it is testing have passed most, but not all, performance tests.  According to NIST, the systems passed most of the more than 30 tests conducted this fall but the systems had some warning system problems in detecting whether forward vehicles were in-lane or out-of-lane on curves or during lane changes.

NIST also measured significant warning delays that resulted in test failures. Such problems are common in automotive crash warning systems that must operate in real-time, at highway speeds, and use multiple low-cost sensors to measure complex three-dimensional scenes, NIST said.

It's obvious a lot more work needs to be done and likely some new laws enacted to ensure future driving safety.

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