Distracted Driving And Crash Avoidance Systems

By Eric Wokas CSP, Risk Control Consultant

One solution to the problem of distracted driving is an array of new technologies that assist the driver with warnings or automatic braking to avoid or mitigate a crash. These advanced technologies vary in their function and how they operate. In general, they monitor driver input and the environment around the vehicle and warn the driver when they detect the possibility of a collision. In some cases, they may automatically brake or steer the vehicle if the driver does not act to avoid a collision.

The simplest and least costly technologies are collision warning systems (CWS). These systems assist a driver in preventing or mitigating collisions by presenting some combination of auditory, visual and tactile warnings. These various warning alerts aid drivers in a variety of potentially dangerous situations, including frontal collision, blind spot detection and lane departure. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study found that forward collision warning alone reduces rear-end crashes by 23 percent, while forward collision warning with autobrake reduces them by 39 percent. The autobrake systems also greatly reduce rear-end crashes involving injury. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) conducted similar studies comparing insurance claim rates for vehicles equipped with front crash prevention systems with claim rates for the same models without such systems. Vehicles equipped with these systems consistently show lower claim rates for damage to other vehicles and for injuries to people in other vehicles.

Blind spot detection has shown to reduce lane-change crashes by 14 percent. HLDI research has also found that blind spot detection lowers rates of insurance claims covering damage to other vehicles. Another warning system, lane departure warning, has not brought down insurance claim rates, but it has reduced rates of single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes reported to the police. Rearview cameras are effective in preventing backing crashes reported to the police, which most often are crashes in which a vehicle backs into another vehicle. The effect of rearview cameras on insurance claims has been less clear. Vehicles with rearview cameras tend to show lower rates of claims for damage caused to other vehicles, but some systems also have higher rates of claims covering damage to their own vehicle. Rear parking sensors have reduced insurance claims, but have had inconsistent effects on backing crashes reported to the police. Appropriate driver responses and acceptance of crash avoidance technologies are critical to the success of these technologies. If drivers don’t trust the systems or find them annoying or not useful, they may disable them. Similarly, if drivers experience warnings but do not understand them, are overwhelmed by them, or do not take an appropriate corrective action, then the systems will be ineffective. Institute surveys of owners of vehicles with crash avoidance technologies found that, despite some annoyances such as false alerts, most drivers left the systems turned on most of the time and felt the systems made them safer drivers.

Another concern is that drivers might rely on crash avoidance systems too much and feel freer to look away from the road or take other risks. In the Institute’s surveys, many owners reported safer driving habits with the systems (e.g., using turn signals more often with lane departure warning systems). Fewer owners reported potentially unsafe behavior, such as waiting for an alert before braking or allowing the vehicle to brake for them at least some of the time. For systems requiring drivers to take action, their effectiveness depends on whether drivers use the technologies, understand the information provided by the system and respond appropriately. Interpreting warnings from multiple systems may be confusing or even distracting for some drivers. In addition to driver challenges, the technology itself can have limitations. For example, lane departure warning systems use sensors to register lane markings or the road edge, which may be problematic on roads that aren’t well-marked or are covered with snow. Sensors such as cameras, radar, and LIDAR (a technology that uses laser light to measure distances) also may not function well in low light or inclement weather. Some systems only work at certain speeds.

Crash avoidance features can address all kinds of distractions by bringing drivers’ attentions back to the road or taking action for them. Front crash prevention systems are making a measurable difference in insurance claims.

Future technology could include other potential game changers. A consortium of federal and state agencies, research organizations and automakers are developing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications platforms that could take crash avoidance even further. The idea is that cars will be able to communicate with each other and roadway infrastructure to help ease congestion and avoid crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that connected vehicle technology could potentially address about 80 percent of crashes involving nonimpaired drivers.


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