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Most People Say They Are Safe Drivers, Want New Auto-Assist Tech Anyway

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Most people will say they’re good drivers when asked. But that confidence doesn’t keep them from wanting new automobiles loaded with the latest in driver-assist technology for avoiding accidents.

Ford Motor Company presented these findings Tuesday at a press conference to talk up the 2013 Fusion mid-size sedan and its abundance of new driver-assist features. Despite wanting technology that improves safety and enhances awareness behind the wheel, 99 percent of the more than 2,500 drivers polled by market research firm Penn Schoen Berland in a recent Ford-sponsored survey indicated they are already safe drivers.

Among those polled, more than 80 percent said they would like help staying in their lane: forward-looking cameras that can determine when their car drifts out of its lane, a steering wheel that vibrates when lane drift is taking place, and a mechanism that applies pressure to the steering wheel and can return the car to its lane. Such features would help avoid accidents when drivers are drowsy or distracted, according to Ford.

More than half of the drivers want still other assists: notification that a car or person is in their blind spot; a collision warning system that activates in time for the driver to hit the brakes; cruise control that automatically slows a car when the vehicle ahead slows; voice-activated mobile phone dialing and texting; and self-parking capabilities. This last feature would be particularly helpful to the 38 percent of respondents who said they are not comfortable parallel parking and actively avoid it whenever possible.

The study may be a boon to much of the technology that Ford and other carmakers offer and will begin making available in the coming years, but it also lays bare the troubling trend that drivers are unwilling or incapable of focusing primarily on driving when they get behind the wheel. Americans tend to multitask behind the wheel, but they are more worried by the prospect of other drivers doing the same, William Mann, Penn Schoen Berland senior vice president and managing director, said while presenting his firm’s research.

Seventy-six percent of respondents admitted to regularly eating or drinking (non-alcoholic beverages) while driving, and 53 percent said they speak via mobile phone handsets while driving (a practice illegal in many states). Nearly half of those polled replied that they have fallen asleep at the wheel or know someone who has. Another 33 percent indicated that they at times pick up their mobile gadgets and cycle through them while driving.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that in 2010 more than 3,000 people were killed and 416,000 others injured in road wrecks caused by distracted driving in the U.S., including crashes involving texting or other cell phone use. Texting is especially problematic because it involves manual, visual and cognitive distraction simultaneously. Sending or reading a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds, according to the NHTSA.

Ford was very careful during the forum to label the technologies in its new Focus and several other models as “driver-assist” features rather than “safety” features. “We’re not replacing the driver, we’re assisting the driver, so they need to maintain themselves in a state in which they are able to drive,” Randy Visintainer, Ford director of Research and Advanced Engineering, responded when asked whether people might get the impression that new technologies could compensate for driving skills diminished by alcohol consumption.

Additional technology is in the works to help lower traffic accidents. Visintainer noted that Ford is participating in the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership, a public–private research consortium that includes several other carmakers working with NHTSA to develop technology that will help cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles avoid crashes by communicating with nearby vehicles and roadway infrastructure, including traffic signals, dangerous road segments and grade crossings.

Image courtesy of Paul Vasarhelyi, via

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 7:05 am 08/29/2012

    Apparently the subjects weren’t also consulted about how much more they’d like to pay for their vehicles.

    “Seventy-six percent of respondents admitted to regularly eating or drinking (non-alcoholic beverages) while driving, and 53 percent said they speak via mobile phone handsets while driving (a practice illegal in many states). Nearly half of those polled replied that they have fallen asleep at the wheel or know someone who has. Another 33 percent indicated that they at times pick up their mobile gadgets and cycle through them while driving.”

    I’m all for full auto-pilot…

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  2. 2. tucanofulano 3:41 pm 08/29/2012

    Apparently lazy people want even more gadgets to distract their out-of-focus concentration. Such people ought to live in a padded cell.

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  3. 3. stefanea100 6:51 pm 08/29/2012

    I have both a drivers license and a private pilot license, VFR, single engine by day. When I took my pilot’s course I was required to fly the aircraft, navigate using maps and on-board instruments, communicate with airport control towers and other aircraft, do in-flight checks and other tasks, all at while maintaining control of the aircraft and not colliding with anything. For small aircraft (e.g. Cessna 150, 172 etc.) there is no co-pilot to help, the pilot must do all these tasks. There are priorities: aviate, navigate, communicate. Why all this paranoia about multi-tasking in the car. The cellphone and texting are only the latest addition to the long list of what happens in a car besides driving: looking for and lighting up a cigarette, eating a burger, drinking a non-alcoholic beverage, applying make-up, keeping an eye on the screaming child in the baby seat, shaving, talking on the CB radio, changing the radio station or CD, using a GPS etc. etc. etc. Certainly I don’t encourage any activity that can take the attention away from actually driving the vehicle but I resist having police entering my vehicle and spying on what I do inside.

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  4. 4. OgreMk5 2:20 pm 08/31/2012

    stefanea100, having been in those small planes with my dad, who is also a pilot, I must say that’s a very poor counter-example.

    Planes can deviate from their flight path by dozens of miles in any direction and almost a 1000 feet up or down before even having a chance of encountering another aircraft. Cars, meanwhile often travel at 70-80 miles per hour within several feet of many other vehicles. Also, cars have a very limited path in which to travel, while planes have much, much larger paths (except around high traffic airports).

    Planes are constant speed. Once you set your speed, that entire decision making process is removed from your thinking until it’s time to land. Cars on the other hand, spend as much time accelerating and braking as they do at a constant speed.

    You aren’t likely to hit a child in an airplane. Airplanes have much higher inspection standards than automobiles. And airplanes (especially small ones) are hands-free communication. You keep your hand on the yoke and push a button (on the yoke) to talk through your headset.

    Oh, and I beg to differ on the no copilot to help in small planes. I’ve often taken the wheel from my dad while he was navigating (or done the navigation myself). Again, there is just so much less risk of doing anything wrong in a plane like that.

    BTW: steph, where do you live? I want to make sure never to drive there.

    I have to agree with jtdwyer… I want full-on auto control, not because of me, but because of the other idiots on the road. Speaking as someone who has been driving for 25 years and never gotten in an accident and only 1 speeding ticket.

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  5. 5. Cosmoknot 12:41 am 09/20/2012

    A cruise control with the ability to lock-onto and keep speed with the vehicle in front would be an excellent addition to our vehicular commutations, and not just for safety, but as well the fuel savings would be significant through having a steady traffic flow rather than the stop-and-go accordion-like jam ups that happen during rush hours because of driver inattention to the requirements for accelerating and braking during crowded driving conditions. Late braking and over-braking cause ripples of momentum loss to proceed backward through the line of cars, and then late-accelerating causes more vehicles behind to lose their momentum as they approach the slowed section of the traffic-accordion. All that lost momentum took energy to create, and so gaining it back requires the vehicles to spend extra energy.
    Truckers pay closer attention to their vehicles’ momentum because abrupt starts and stops aren’t possible for them. They have the benefit of the height of their seated driving position allowing them to see beyond the vehicle directly in front of them, since keeping proper speed with the vehicle directly in front requires seeing what is in front of it. Any sort of lock-on cruise control would need to keep track of more than just the speed of the vehicle directly ahead.

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  6. 6. Newrose 1:34 am 01/16/2013

    Main problem with driving the that people think they are safe drivers. Perhaps we need a yearly driving test to prove again and again OR we need rigorous enforcement that will root out any one not following rules properly/

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  7. 7. safedrive 4:59 am 03/18/2014

    Be aware of your car’s limits and never try to push your car to do something it clearly cannot easily do. For example, always leave enough time when overtaking so you don’t get stuck trying to accelerate. Be familiar with the amount of pressure you need to put on the brakes. Author By: Shanon Gordon.

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