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Could Partially Self-Driving Cars Increase Distracted Driving?

We have previously written about the dangers of distracted driving as well as how frighteningly common the behavior is. Despite California’s stringent laws against texting and handheld cellphone use behind the wheel, you probably notice at least one driver distracted by an electronic device every time you get in the car.

Of course, California is not alone in its distracted driving problem. This is an epidemic around the country. Some feel that laws and public awareness campaigns aren’t doing enough to curb distracted driving and that we won’t truly be safe until fully automated vehicles (like those being developed by Google) become commonplace. In the meantime, partial automation of the driving experience could actually be doing more harm than good when it comes to preventing distracted driving accidents.

Right now, most Americans are still driving cars that are mostly or entirely driver-controlled. But car manufacturers are increasingly introducing features designed to act as a sort of autopilot in certain situations. Some new vehicles let drivers take both hands off the wheel when driving in slow traffic. Other vehicles have the following feature designed to help highway drivers maintain a consistent distance behind the cars in front of them. Then there are features designed to warn drivers when they drift out of their lane or are in danger of a collision.

In theory, these features are great, because human error is at least partially to blame in the vast majority of car accidents. But as partial automation becomes more standard in vehicles, there’s a reason to believe that some drivers will use these features in unintended and unsafe ways. They may develop a false sense of security and assume that they can text or surf the web because their car is watching the road for them.

For better and worse, technology usually develops far more quickly than laws meant to regulate it. As such, automakers must introduce features of partial automation in safe and responsible ways.

Source: The New York Times, “Risks to Hands-Free Driving,” May 28, 2015

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