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


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

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

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