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Tech Talk: More electronic nannies on the horizon

Published November 30, 2012

Since September 2011, all new cars and light trucks sold in Canada and the U.S. have been equipped with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) as government-mandated standard equipment.

If the U.S. National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) has its way, there will be more standard electronic nannies required on the vehicles you buy in the not-too-distant future.

Specifically, the safety agency wants collision-avoidance technologies — such as forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control and automatic braking — to be made mandatory on new vehicles. All of this is to help collisions resulting from distracted driving.

In addition, the agency wants more limits placed on the use of hand-held electronic devices.

Regardless of a driver’s skills, sudden moves by other drivers and changes in vehicle controllability pose significant safety risks, the agency says. For unaware drivers, the consequences can be deadly.

The technologies recommended are intended to help drivers reduce their reaction times and thus avoid crashes or, at least, minimize crash severity.

As an investigative agency, whose role is to dissect and study crashes involving all types of transportation vehicles, the NTSB doesn’t have the authority to establish such standards itself. So it is calling on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to do so.

Canada’s federal safety regulations typically mirror those set by NHTSA in the U.S., although not always on the same timetable.

NHTSA has not taken any action on the recommendations but is said to be studying them.

It has, however, released data showing that rear-end collisions account for 28 per cent of all highway crashes in the U.S, while run-off-the-road and lane-change manoeuveres account for 23 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.

And those are precisely the types of crashes the technologies are intended to prevent. Many are already available on premium-priced vehicles, and their effectiveness has been demonstrated to various degrees.

A study conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute in the U.S. showed that collision avoidance systems in Acura and Mercedes-Benz models, which included an automatic braking feature as well as a warning system, lowered property damage liability claims by 14 per cent.

However, the study did not show any reduction in claims for vehicles equipped with lane-departure warning.

A long-term European study called euroFOT (European Field Operational Test) showed that cars with both forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control could potentially affect up to 5.7 per cent of the injury-producing crashes on expressways.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that forward collision warning could prevent 879 fatal crashes annually for passenger vehicles in the U.S. That’s twice as many lives saved as the institute credits to ESC.

There were 2,227 road-fatalities in Canada in 2010, the latest year for which data has been published by Transport Canada. And 170,629 people were injured.

Even without regulation, it’s not unusual for technologies introduced in higher-priced vehicles to make their way down the price range ladder if they prove to be effective. Such was the case with anti-lock brakes, for example.

But without regulation, competitive pricing prevents automakers from adopting such features voluntarily, especially with entry-level vehicles.

By some estimates, the added cost of these advanced safety features could range from $1,000 to $3,500 per vehicle.

The NTSB also took a hard-line approach against portable electronic devices.

It not only endorsed laws that prohibit hand-held cellphone use when driving but urged manufacturers to develop technology that disables the devices when in reach of drivers.

Driver distraction is complicated and we are still learning what the human brain can and cannot handle, the agency said in a statement. What we do know is that crash risk increases when operators use portable electronic devices.

Distraction is not just about a device or a visual distraction. It is also about cognitive distraction or not being fully engaged in the task at hand.

Researchers at the University of Calgary in 2008 concluded that driving performance degrades when using either handheld or hands-free cellphones. Other studies suggest that simply reaching for a cellphone, headset or earpiece increases the risk of distraction.

Whether any of the NTSB’s recommendations will be adopted remains to be seen.

But if they are, it’s unlikely any mandate would take effect before 2017.

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