If cars are so much safer than they used to be — courtesy of the beneficence of the federal government — how come fatalities are increasing rather than decreasing?
It’s another one of those awkward questions (like the ones about rivers of molten steel in the basement ruins of the Trade Center Towers) that no one seems to want to ask . . . probably because the answers don’t jibe with the conventions.
Or — in this case — the regulations.
About 40,000 people died in car crashes last year.
2018 was also the third year in a row that fatalities increased.
Curiously, that’s roughly the same interval of time during which the most aggressive — the most pre-emptive — safety systems have been mandated or otherwise become fairly common in new cars.
For example, automated emergency braking and “lane keep assist” — which prods the inattentive driver with beeps if he allows the car to wander out of its lane; in some cases, countersteering to get the car back in its lane. Also “pedestrian detection” and back-up cameras (with buzzers) intended to prevent pedestrians and so on from being struck or run over by not-paying-attention drivers.
And that probably accounts for it. The uptick in motor vehicle fatalities.
Drivers are paying less and less attention to driving because cars are taking over more and more of the driving.
This is deliberate policy; the premise being that people can’t be trusted to drive attentively and competently, so let’s let the cars take over.
But these peremptory safety systems have incentivized inattention. Why not take your eyes off the road — and send that text — when you have been told you can depend on the car stopping itself if the car ahead of you suddenly slows down?
Or so you hope.
Another problem with all these safety systems is that — just like us — they are not infallible, even when they are paying attention.
In some ways, they are more fallible than we are — and so double-down on the problem.
Automated braking, adaptive cruise control and blind spot/pedestrian detection systems, for example, depend on proximity sensors to detect an object (or vehicle) in the path of the car. But the proximity sensors are mounted outside the car — where they are exposed to acuity-occluding phenomena such as mud splashed on them, or ice or snow covering them.
A driver who assumes they can still “see” — and that the car will brake — may be in for an expensive (and possibly worse) lesson.
Back-up cameras have a limited field of vision, even when the cameras can see. They haven’t got the depth perception a healthy human eye has. They lack peripheral vision, too.
Who is more to blame? The not-paying-attention driver? Or the technology which encourages him to not pay attention? These systems are sold as adjuncts to driving — and there are typically layers of lawyered-up warnings and cautions urging the driver to pay full time attention.
But the fact remains:
These systems encourage inattention and passivity behind the wheel.
Both of which result in delayed reactions to situations that demand immediate attention.
The time it takes for a developing problem to register in the brain of a driver who was looking at or thinking about some other thing — plus the time it takes for him to decide what to do — and then do it — can be the difference between a fatality and a close call.
Automated systems aren’t smart, either.
They are merely programmed.
If a new variable is introduced which the programming didn’t anticipate, the system can’t compensate. Hit the dog that just ran in the road? Or the kid on the side of the road, if you (or the car’s programming) decides to swerve to avoid the dog.
A compounding problem — which raises yet another question almost no one seems interested in asking, probably because of the answer — is the ubiquity of distracting gadgets inside cars, especially the operational equivalent of the cell phones people are told not to use while driving.
People are ticketed for texting and driving — but in the bizarro world that is the United States, it’s ok to tap/swipe/scroll through the Moby Dick-like menu of apps and “info” and other such that are built into literally almost every new car, even the least expensive new models.
In several new cars — the Tesla S and Model 3 and the new Prius hybrid, for example — there are almost no physical/tactile controls that can be manipulated by touch — without having to look — in order to perform basic and necessary adjustments such as turning on the defroster or increasing/decreasing the heat. Everything is on the flat screen — which you have to look at because you can’t operate it by feel.
And in the Prius — and Teslas — the huge LCD touchscreen is mounted in the center of the dashboard — so the driver has to look to his right — and thus, the road is no longer in his line of sight.
Physical controls for things like the AC and heater are still common — but they’re becoming less and less so with each new model year as the car companies practically step on one another to be the first to offer all-touchscreen or mostly touchscreen interfaces in their cars.
Uncle approves — or at least, doesn’t forbid.
Which brings up the real question: If Uncle is so very concerned about our safety, why doesn’t Uncle incentivize attentive driving?
Discourage passivity behind the wheel?
The answer — which is certain to bring up more uncomfortable questions — is that Uncle’s true agenda isn’t saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety but control.
The less control we have over our cars, the more control Uncle has over us.
The body count is incidental. They are the “eggs” which are necessary to break in order to make the “omelettes.”