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Could cars become too safe?

Back in 2005 Sandra Messerly, a mother from Kentucky, USA, reversed over her 19-month-old child causing fatal injuries.  She had decided to move her 2002 Nissan Xterra SUV off the drive in order to create more space in which her children could play.  However, she failed to spot the fact that her elder son, Foxx, had moved from where she had left him and, despite checking her mirrors and looking over her shoulder, the size of the Xterra meant she never saw him when she began to move.

This accident would be tragic yet relatively unremarkable were it not for the fact that Messerly has taken the case to court on the grounds that her Nissan was unsafe – not due to any mechanical issue, but because it had neither a reversing camera, nor reversing sensors.  Messerly’s claim was backed up by the Kentucky court of appeal which has agreed to hear the case, demonstrating that manufacturers run the risk of litigation if they don’t cover the entire safety base.

Volvo, arguably the manufacturer which has done the most over the decades in the cause of vehicle safety, has recently announced that it is trialling a new active system which will enable its cars to ‘follow’ and react to a car in front at speeds of up to 30mph.  Set for introduction in 2014, the idea is that in slow-moving traffic an upgraded version of adaptive cruise control will accelerate, brake and steer for the driver.

Most cars already come as standard with a host of active and passive systems such as ABS, ESP, emergency brake assist, airbags, reversing sensors and many, many more.  With Volvo’s new system added to the list, a driver’s foresight, reaction and control inputs seem to be becoming secondary. Satellite navigation systems are another example of technology deterring our attention from the roads, not to mention making us dumber and losing our common sense.

There is an argument among some, however, that modern cars have become so safe, and isolate drivers from the road so much, that an increasing number of bad habits are creeping in.  Driving a new car with a 5-star Euro NCAP rating is certainly a totally different experience to driving a small, basic car from the 1990s with no safety features to speak of.  And you tend to drive with a far higher level of concentration in the older vehicle, simply due to the difference in refinement.

For example, in wet conditions more and more people in new cars seem to remain in the fast lane travelling at over 80mph because inside, all is calm.  Isolated from the noise and unable to feel the lack of traction through the steering wheel, drivers may well think that in the event of an emergency, the various safety systems will keep them on the black stuff.  But there is only so much a driver aid can do when a 1.5-ton car hits standing water at high speed.

Essentially, drivers could end up concentrating less and, consequently, driving at a far lower standard.  And when something does go wrong, there is a greater chance of carmakers ending up with a situation like Nissan has found itself in – answering a lawsuit because its vehicle didn’t have a particular type of safety aid, and the driver won’t accept fault.

The impact of safety features on crash survival rates can’t be underestimated, and continuous development should be applauded.  But there may well be a tipping-point where the isolation of a driver against the physical forces of a moving vehicle and the elements that it encounters starts to foster unwelcome habits on a widespread basis.

While the jeopardy of driving should be minimised, road users must remember that ultimately, the culpability for a vehicle lies firmly in the driver’s hands.

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