Don't Let Your Car Do the Driving (Yet)

Many of today's vehicles are smart enough to help you drive, but you still need to pay attention.

Even if the car is helping, you need to stay engaged.

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Cars are getting smarter these days: Thanks to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), some vehicles can brake for pedestrians, keep you in your lane, maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you, and more.

But according to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the more drivers use ADAS, the more likely they are to distract themselves with things like email and entertainment. Distracted driving is a problem even without ADAS but these technologies could make it worse.

"As drivers gain experience using ADAS technology, they can develop complacency behind the wheel," says Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation. "Over reliance on these systems can put drivers and others in danger."

Researchers at the AAA Foundation and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute analyzed two groups of drivers who were using driver-assistance technology: those who already owned vehicles with ADAS (and therefore had more experience with it), and those who were new to it. The latter were given a vehicle equipped with ADAS to use for the four-week study period.

Ask for a demo before you buy a car with ADAS features.

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The researchers observed that drivers in the first group were more likely to do things like send texts or adjust the radio when their ADAS systems were turned on than when those systems were off. Drivers with less ADAS experience paid more attention to the road when the systems were engaged.

Those investigators theorize that drivers move through two phases when using ADAS technology. First there's a "novelty" stage, when first-timers learn and test the technology; they're less inclined to trust the systems, so they remain engaged. But drivers eventually move to an "experienced" phase, when they're more apt to take their attention off the act of driving.

There are three good ways to avoid letting your smart car lull you into carelessness:

  • Learn what ADAS technologies are installed in your car and how they work. If you're buying a new car, ask for a demo of those features. Otherwise, read the owner's manual to understand what those systems can and (most importantly) can't do.

  • Always remain attentive when using ADAS technologies, even though it can seem as though the car is driving itself.

  • Remember that driver-assistance systems have their limitations and that none can take the place of an alert, engaged driver.