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Smart cars, smart drivers?

Not so fast, says a study from MetLife Auto & Home

By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU

Some of us remember when the family car had no seatbelts or airbags and baby sister sat up front on Mom's lap while Dad was driving us to the root beer stand. The windows rolled up and down with a hand crank, the boys wrestled in the back seat, and the biggest electronic distraction was the AM radio in the dash, which invariably was tuned to a station that didn't play rock 'n' roll. Back then, cars were built like tanks with steel bumpers and solid chrome grilles, and even toy cars were still made of metal rather than plastic.

Those days and those cars are now a distant memory, and the vehicles of today bear little resemblance to their brawny ancestors. A host of safety features, some federally mandated, plus a dizzying array of convenience gadgets like Bluetooth, onboard GPS, and even in-car social networking, combine to create a 21st century driving environment that's almost like home.

Innumerable tests have convincingly demonstrated the life-saving potential of high-tech safety equipment like electronic stability control, brake assist, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning. In fact, electronic stability control is no longer optional: Beginning with 2012 models, all vehicles manufactured for the U.S. market are required by the federal government to have this feature.

The other side of automotive high tech is the "fun stuff," designed to enhance drivers' convenience and enjoyment. Fun and safety, alas, are not always best friends. It's common knowledge that distracted driving—dialing, talking, and texting on cell phones, calibrating a GPS, searching for the desired playlist on an MP3 device—is a major and growing cause of accidents, especially among younger drivers.

Does modern automotive technology really make the roadways safer? Do drivers understand safety features and know how to use them? When evaluating optional equipment, how often do drivers choose convenience over safety?

In search of answers to these and other questions about the impact of technology on driver safety and accident rates, MetLife Auto & Home commissioned a study called the American Safety Pulse Poll. The results paint a mixed picture, with the majority of respondents believing that cars are safer today than they were 10 years ago while a considerably smaller cohort thinks that new technology is making people safer drivers.

According to the study, 85% of Americans believe that cars are safer today, but only 29% think that new technology has made people safer drivers—and almost two thirds (63%) believe that drivers place too much reliance on the high-tech features in their vehicles.

The survey clearly shows that, although American drivers do care about safety, they have a significantly higher degree of familiarity with convenience-oriented features than with those designed to enhance safety.

For example, 90% of respondents were either very or somewhat familiar with GPS devices, which make it easy to find a destination but also can take a driver's attention off the road.

Some 77% of those surveyed were very or somewhat familiar with Bluetooth-style accessories, which make it easy to make and receive calls but also contribute to distracted driving.

What's more, 27% of respondents indicated they were very or somewhat familiar with the in-car social networking features that only recently have become available in some vehicles—a number that increased to 40% among drivers between the ages of 18 and 34.

"What's that?"

In contrast, when asked about their familiarity with safety-oriented features, some of which have been available for several years, fewer than half of respondents reported that they were very or somewhat familiar with various safety technologies.

Less than half (42%) were very or somewhat familiar with electronic stability control, one of the most significant safety advancements of recent years, which helps improve steering and prevent rollover accidents. Almost one third of respondents (31%) had never heard of this feature.

Just 44% of respondents were very or somewhat familiar with brake assist, which applies additional brake force in the event of a sudden stop.

Similarly, only 43% were very or somewhat familiar with forward collision warning, which alerts the driver when sensors detect an imminent front-end impact.

And just 28% of those surveyed were very or somewhat familiar with the lane departure warning feature, which warns a driver that he or she is drifting out of the designated lane on a highway. Forty-one percent had never heard of this feature.

The majority (55%) of those polled said they would prefer to drive a car with state-of-the-art technology upgrades, with a similar percentage saying they feel safer when their own vehicles and those around them are equipped with safety features. But when they were asked which features they wanted in their next car, convenience won out over safety, with 63% of respondents saying they would choose features like GPS and just 45% opting for electronic stability control.

Where are we headed?

As a leading writer of private passenger auto insurance, MetLife Auto & Home clearly has reason to be concerned about the safety and insurance implications of the survey findings. We asked Rick Ward, claims director for the insurer, to comment on the responses.

"The biggest surprise for us was that drivers are much more familiar with the convenience features of new technology than they are with the safety features," Ward says. "People are more likely to pay for GPS than for electronic stability control and other features that can save their lives."

In many newer model vehicles, Ward points out, convenience features like GPS and Bluetooth are built into the dashboard so that the driver can make and receive calls hands free and program the GPS using voice commands. To save money or to add these features to an older vehicle, many drivers purchase after-market versions of these devices, like portable GPS units that sit on top of the dashboard. "In newer vehicles, the onboard GPS cannot be hand-programmed while the vehicle is being driven," Ward says. "That's not the case with a portable GPS device; the driver can adjust it on the fly, and that's a major concern."

Whether it's onboard or portable, Ward remarks, GPS is a distraction for drivers. "Even while we're listening to the voice prompts, we still tend to look at the screen. When the prompt says 'Turn left at Elm,' we make the turn—but we may turn into an oncoming vehicle because we were watching the screen instead of the road."

One manufacturer, Ward notes, has come up with a way to save drivers from themselves in this situation. "For some of its 2012 models, a leading German auto manufacturer has developed a laser technique that shoots a beam in front of the car as you're driving," he says. "If the GPS tells you to make a left turn and there's a car coming from the other direction, this technique actually stops your car so you can't make the turn." This is an example, Ward observes, of how car manufacturers are using one technology to compensate for the human errors that can arise from the use of another technology.

"These kinds of technologies are usually introduced by the makers of high-end vehicles, but it's amazing how quickly they trickle down into the more mainstream fleet," Ward comments.

Claims trends

As useful as it would be for insurers to know how automotive technology affects losses and claims, Ward says, that kind of information is hard to come by. "When people report an accident, they don't usually say, 'Oh, by the way, I was texting right before I hit the other car.' They tend not to volunteer information about what they were doing that contributed to the accident. Sometimes we can find out what really happened from the police report or from a witness who saw the driver texting, but we don't have enough data to develop meaningful statistics about how these technologies are affecting claims," Ward says.

He adds, however, "There are reports on distracted driving from sources like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and they say that 25% to 30%, or roughly 1.2 million car crashes a year in the U.S., are the result of drivers not paying attention. For years we've seen people doing all kinds of things while driving—from eating, shaving, and putting on makeup to steering with a dog on their lap or turning around to discipline a child in the back seat. Now, in addition to those behaviors, people are texting, programming their GPS, and even doing social networking while driving."

As the MetLife American Safety Pulse study shows, drivers are concerned about safety while at the same time being attracted to the "fun and glamour" side of automotive technology.

"Technology is great for both safety and convenience, but none of it can replace an attentive driver," Ward declares. "In fact, it was never meant to. We believe that if drivers increase their understanding of the safety features available in today's vehicles, they will use this information to choose the vehicle that provides the best protection for themselves and their families on the road."

For more information:

MetLife Auto & Home

Web site:


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