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Status Report, Vol. 49, No. 8 | SPECIAL ISSUE: DISTRACTED DRIVING | October 24, 2014 Subscribe

Technology that pays attention to the road when drivers don't

One solution to the problem of distracted driving may be technology that intervenes for drivers when they aren't paying attention to the road. Drivers get into fewer crashes when their vehicles are equipped with front crash prevention systems, and new technology is on the way to connect vehicles to each other and roadway infrastructure to alleviate crashes.

Crash avoidance features can address all kinds of distractions by bringing drivers' attention back to the road or taking action for them. Front crash prevention systems with autonomous braking that can stop drivers from rear-ending another vehicle or slow them down enough to lessen the impact are making a measurable difference in insurance claims (see Status Report special issue: crash avoidance, July 3, 2012).

Launched in 2013, the Institute's front crash prevention ratings are helping drive adoption of the most effective technologies. In just two rounds of tests, automakers have shown a strong commitment to improving systems in order to maximize the safety benefits (see "Quick work: Better autobrake helps more models earn top ratings for front crash prevention," May 29, 2014). The European New Car Assessment Programme rates front crash prevention systems for models sold in Europe, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identifies vehicles equipped with advanced technology features at safercar.gov.

The Institute has estimated that if all vehicles were equipped with crash avoidance features, 1.9 million crashes, including 1 in 3 fatal ones, could potentially be prevented or mitigated if the systems worked perfectly (see "New estimates of benefits of crash avoidance features on passenger vehicles," May 20, 2010).

Right now, though, there isn't a universal quick fix for distraction's role in crashes. Most new vehicles don't have crash avoidance features, and it will take some time before the systems are in wide use as newer vehicles supplant older ones. It typically takes three decades for safety features to spread through the fleet, HLDI research indicates (see "Estimated time of arrival," Jan. 24, 2012).

Future technology could include other potential game changers. A consortium of federal and state agencies, research organizations and automakers is developing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications platforms that could take crash avoidance even further. The idea is that cars will be able to communicate with each other and roadway infrastructure to help ease congestion and avoid crashes.

NHTSA estimates that connected vehicle technology could potentially address about 80 percent of crashes involving nonimpaired drivers. The agency is laying the groundwork for adoption of vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology for passenger vehicles.

Driverless cars, such as the ones tech giant Google is developing and testing, are another promising approach.

In the meantime, the Institute, federal government and other road safety groups worldwide are attempting to understand and quantify the potential and real-world benefits of using technology to compensate for driver mistakes that can lead to crashes.

In 2013, the Institute and its member companies began a $30 million project to expand the Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville, Va. A newly enlarged outdoor track provides space for high-speed maneuvers plus room to evaluate front crash prevention systems and other technologies. Work continues on a 300-by-700-foot covered outdoor track to enable the Institute to evaluate vehicle-based systems regardless of the weather. Robotics systems also are in the works.

Estimated time of arrival: New safety features take 3 decades to spread through vehicle fleet

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