Your car's automated safety features are probably making driving less safe

I live in Boston, which is known among other things for having absolutely terrible drivers. I've also been bicycling as my primary mode of transportation since 2006, with only a handful of near-death experiences at the hands of oblivious automobile operators. Between this, and the bajillion suburban car accidents my mother has had in whatever SVU she's driving this week, has helped me to form a largely-anecdotal theory in my head about the way that big cars with "helpful" computer systems have actually alienated people from their communities even more by coddling them inside of 2-ton metal death traps that they can operate while hardly paying attention. (Certainly the rise of smartphones haven't helped with us either.) When I drive a car, I prefer smaller ones, ideally with manual transmission. It's for the same reason that I like to ride my bike: I'm in control. I don't trust these gas-guzzling machines, possibly because they've tried to kill me several times already. So if I am going to drive one, I want to make sure it knows who's boss.

Over at The Verge, writer David Zipper thoughtfully confirmed my anecdotal theory by doing some actual research. (Thanks, David!) Zipper does some fantastic data crunching on the rise of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), alongside the continued increase in automobile deaths (about 40,000 per year, with a 10.% surge in 2021 alone). Here's a taste:

2020 study by AAA found that the average system turned itself off every eight minutes, noting "instances of trouble with the systems keeping the vehicles … in their lane and coming too close to other vehicles or guardrails." In a separate study of pedestrian detection, AAA found the feature to be "completely useless" at night, when 75 percent of pedestrians are struck. The European Transport Safety Council concurred, noting ADAS's shortcomings in dark, wet, or foggy conditions. Even more troubling, automakers' crucial driver monitoring systems can be cheated and do not work reliably


Mercedes claims that its system can prevent pedestrian collisions at up to 30mph and mitigate the severity of vehicular crashes at up to 45mph, but the company makes no promises above those thresholds. This isn't a challenge limited to Mercedes: a recent AAA study found that carmakers' automatic emergency braking systems prevented 85 percent of test crashes at 30mph but only 30 percent at 40mph. 

Already, a study by the IIHS found that the use of adaptive cruise control increased the share of drivers who broke the speed limit by 18 percent, and San Jose State researchers concluded that ADAS-equipped cars were more likely to crash into pedestrians or cyclists. These findings align with the Peltzman effect's predicted shift toward unsafe driving, with those outside the vehicle bearing disproportionate risk. Such dangers could be exacerbated by drivers who overestimate ADAS's capabilities, as more than half of Cadillac Super Cruise users seem to do, according to a recent IIHS study.

I don't necessarily buy Zipper's association with the Peltzman effect, which is more of a libertarian wetdream than a reliable socio-economic theory. I'd argue that it has less to do with individual people taking risks, and more to do with people being thoughtless and inattentive because they assume the robot copilot in their giant SUV will protect them.

On a related note: ban the right turn on red.

Don't expect your car's safety technology to save you [David Zipper / The Verge]

Image: Ian Maddox / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)