Will Distracted Driving Get Worse Before It Gets Better?

Distracted driving is a huge problem, and something most of us see on the road every day. In a recent Esurance survey of more than 1,000 U.S. drivers, 58 percent admitted to occasional or frequent distracted driving. Even though distracted driving causes hundreds of thousands of accident-related injuries and thousands of fatalities every year, it still happens all the time.

The Esurance survey also found that new car technology — even the tech aimed at making us safer — is actually adding to our distractions. But let’s take it a step further and ask whether features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking and other semi-autonomous technology give drivers a false sense of security and even encourage more risky and distracting behaviors. Are people taking advantage of semi-autonomous tech to text, talk on the phone, eat, email and browse the web while driving?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” Ninety-one percent of those surveyed by Esurance believe that texting while driving is dangerous, but 53 percent say they still do it anyway. As cars become more and more “self-driving,” human drivers are becoming more distracted than ever — lulled into a false sense of security by all that tech. After all, if your car is keeping itself centered in the lane and controlling its own speed relative to traffic, what harm could it be to send a quick text, fix your hair or read an email?

Not so fast! It’s still illegal to drive distracted, even if your car has semi-autonomous features — and it’s still very dangerous, too. In 2016, a Tesla driver died while using his car’s “Autopilot” feature, even though the autopilot system reportedly warned him at least seven times to put his hands on the wheel.

It would seem that the problem of driver distraction won’t be solved until cars are fully autonomous (meaning the human driver is removed from the equation entirely). Until then, it’s likely the problem will only get worse, as drivers over-rely on semi-autonomous features to counterbalance distracted behavior.

What’s Being Done About Distracted Driving in the Meantime?

As cars are getting more and more semi-autonomous capabilities, it’s increasingly important for carmakers to address head-on the issue of distracted driving. And that’s what many are doing.

  • Tesla shows a warning message on the dashboard telling drivers not to take their hands off the wheel while their Autopilot system is active (as mentioned above). If the driver takes their hands off the wheel for more than a handful of seconds, the car will chime and remind them to keep their hands on the wheel. If this happens three times in one trip, Autopilot will be disabled until the car is stopped and restarted. It’s important to note, though, that people are already misusing Autopilot, canceling out the safety benefits the tech could offer.
  • Both Nissan and Mercedes-Benz have similar systems using pressure-sensitive steering wheels, although these won’t go so far as to disable their semi-autonomous features for drivers who ignore the warning messages.
  • Volvo’s “Pilot Assist” program will display a warning message and cancel the system if it doesn’t detect a certain amount of regular steering input from the driver. On the other hand, some drivers have noted that sometimes the system goes into standby mode while the car is moving.
  • General Motors is currently developing an eye-tracking system that will see when drivers’ attention strays too far from the road ahead. The new “Super Cruise” feature uses sound and visuals to alert the driver and direct their focus back to the road. Similar eye-tracking technology is reportedly being planned by Audi as well.

But ultimately, it’s still the driver’s responsibility to pay attention at all times, no matter how many driver aids are active — and yes, even if fully autonomous car tech is achieved in the future. Though technology has the capacity to make our commutes significantly safer, that only holds true if drivers aren’t distracted by it in the first place (and they are). So even if your vehicle has driverless tech, you still need to focus all your attention on the road to ensure you and everyone around you stays safe.

Haden Kirkpatrick is the director of marketing strategy and innovation at Esurance, where he is responsible for all initiatives related to product and service innovation. Haden is an innovator who is constantly thinking about how IoT, machine learning and autonomous cars will impact the insurance industry.

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