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
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.
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
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
"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.
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: www.metlife.com