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Do Automated Cars Make Drivers More Inattentive?

By Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S. on April 26, 2021

The future draws nearer and nearer as automated vehicles become more commonplace, but many humans are still concerned about what this means for road safety.

Proponents of self-driving vehicles claim that this technology can eliminate driver error altogether and stop the majority of car accidents. While we hope that they are correct and our roads will become significantly safer, that technology is still far away, and until then, we still have to deal with a major issue in partially automated vehicles: driver inattention.

Types of Automation

When most people hear the term “self-driving car,” they assume it means the vehicle is 100% automated, with the car’s software handling the steering, braking, acceleration, and parking. However, there are actually several levels of automation, with most modern vehicles still at the lower end. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rates automated vehicles on a scale of 0 to 5:

  • 0 – No Automation: These vehicles have no automated functions and are fully in the control of the driver.
  • 1 – Driver Assistance: Driver assistance means the driver is still in control of the vehicle, but the car’s software may help keep the vehicle stable.
  • 2 – Partial Automation: The car may control acceleration and steering, but the driver should still have hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
  • 3 – Conditional Automation: The car can handle most functions, including braking, acceleration, and steering, but the driver should be ready to take control in an emergency.
  • 4 – High Automation: The car’s software has total control over the vehicle in certain scenarios, but the driver can take control if necessary.
  • 5 – Full Automation: The car is self-driving in all scenarios and has full control, but the driver can override this to take control.

Currently, modern vehicles only reach level 2, and researchers are still testing the higher levels of automation in controlled environments. Even Teslas, which are considered the most advanced cars available for purchase, are only partially automated — their self-driving capabilities are in beta testing.

How Technology Can Prevent Serious Collisions

An estimated 95% of auto accidents are the result of driver error, which can include distraction, intoxication, and speeding, according to the NHTSA. In fact, new technology like automated braking and forward collision warning has already helped decrease accidents rates. When these features were added to large semi-trucks, their involvement in rear-end collisions dropped as much as 20%.

New technology and research are key to eliminating auto accidents, and the end goal for automated vehicles is to eliminate crashes altogether by taking human error out of the equation. It is a lofty goal, but research shows that it may not be possible.

Limits of “Self-Driving” Cars

Researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimate that self-driving technology can only eliminate one-third of all car accidents caused by human error. While this technology can spot dangers faster than humans, it has a harder time accounting for things like speed and traffic rates. To eliminate these issues, researchers believe that the tech needs to prioritize safety above “speed and convenience.” There are also concerns over equipment failures and dangerous road designs, which a program may have a difficult time predicting and adjusting for.

In addition to the limitations of this technology, automated vehicles also have a higher rate of distracted driving. The IIHS tested drivers using level 1 and level 2 automated vehicles over several months and determined that the longer a driver used an automated vehicle, the more likely he was to take his hands off the wheel or fidget with a device. Over time, automated vehicles may make drivers less attentive and thus less able to react when they need to, increasing the likelihood of an auto accident.

Texas Tesla Crash Raises Concerns

Texas police reported that two vehicle occupants died when their vehicle, a Tesla Model S, collided with a tree and caught fire. According to the authorities, no one was at the wheel at the time of the collision. While Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated that the vehicle was not in auto-pilot mode, the police are still retrieving the vehicle’s black-box data to determine what caused the collision.

This tragic event should be a reminder to all drivers that the best defense against an accident is the right training, a clear mind, and a commitment to safe driving.

Injured in an Accident?

If you were injured by a distracted driver or driverless vehicle, then you deserve full compensation for your trauma. Our Seattle personal injury attorneys at Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S., can utilize more than 40 years of experience to investigate how your collision occurred and advocate for your best interests in a claim. We can sit down with you in a free consultation and explain all of your options. Call us at (425) 228-3860 or toll-free at (888) 228-3860 to get started on your case.

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