New Technologies Will Make Driving Much Safer. How We Think About Safety Needs To Keep Up.


It has been awhile since our safety conference, but one of the things I learned in preparing for that event still sticks in my mind: When I looked through the federal accident fatality data it was clear that modern vehicles do a remarkable job in protecting both drivers and passengers in the event of an accident. So good, in fact, that there is not really a statistical difference from one vehicle to another. They are all equally "safe."

I guess this shouldn't really have been a surprise as the National Highway Safety Transportation Agency (NHSTA) admitted as much when they announced a change in their crash test score methodology; a change triggered by the fact that "too many" vehicles were earning the top 5-star rating.

With all this as background, I have been noting the growing emergence of new safety technologies on new vehicles. Not just new in the simplest sense of the word, but also new in terms of thinking. The shift seems a tacit recognition that we can't really expect much more in terms of gains in surviving an accident. But we can see huge gains if we focus on preventing an accident in the first place.

Another point from the safety conference: We are all pretty lousy drivers. We can be tired, distracted, bored, confused; whatever the reason, the vast majority of accidents are a result of driver error. So if technology can help us be better drivers, it seems like a no-brainer.

First generation accident avoidance technologies tended to be passive, like a beeping back-up camera. These are easy to overlook. The newest technologies are more engaging. Some apply brakes automatically. Others might signal a problem via a vibration in the steering wheel. The key is that the feedback is much harder to ignore.

But what about thornier issues like liability? If the vehicle is helping with the driving and there is an accident, who is at fault? Or, more fundamentally, for cash-strapped, but safety-conscience consumers, which technologies are really worth the money?

So when I heard recently that the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) was investing in a major expansion of their testing facility for crash avoidance — an expansion designed to get at just the issues I raised above — it struck a chord.

Obviously there is much to be worked out. For one, how does IIHS report on their learnings in a way that resonates with consumers? (Making the complex simple is never easy...)

We also heard this week that Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood is stepping down. This change at the top presents an opportunity for NHSTA to also rethink its approach to safety. For starters, instead of tweaking (and in the process, confusing) the crash test ratings system, the agency should start over and think about how consumers could be provided with decision-making tools that are correlated with what they would likely experience in real-world driving.

That level of clear thinking might be asking too much from a government agency subject to congressional mandates and oversight. As that is likely the case, we should be especially happy to at least see IIHS taking baby steps in the right direction.

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