While many studies show that a vehicle's high-tech safety features reduce road risks, a new report says they can be dangerous for distracted drivers who overly rely on them or don't know what to do if they fail.
AAA recently tested adaptive cruise control and autonomous braking systems in typical driving situations at the Auto Club of Southern California's Automotive Research Center. Results were mixed -- AAA discovered problems from motorists becoming lazy behind the wheel to braking technology not working as well as expected.
Overall, the simulations demonstrated that adaptive cruise control did a good job of maintaining a specified following distance when traveling behind slower-moving vehicles in a highway setting, according to AAA. On the down side, however, autonomous braking systems did not always recognize obstacles, provide a warning signal or engage the brakes to slow or stop the vehicle.
Mix in distracted driving and the risks escalate, adds John Nielsen, the managing director of AAA's Automotive Engineering and Repair division. "There are significant benefits to this technology, but these systems have limitations, and multi-tasking drivers could be caught off guard by relying too heavily on safety features," Nielsen said in a written statement. "The benefits of these systems could easily be outweighed if motorists are not familiar with their operation or lessen focus behind the wheel. Technology is not a substitute for an alert, engaged driver."
AAA's road tests found that:
- Using the advanced systems to track a vehicle at highway speeds while navigating a mild curve was "unexpectedly difficult," but tracking improved when following distance was reduced.
- The ability to recognize obstacles differed from car to car. The owner's manuals, however, do warn that the systems may not recognize or react to motorcycles, a stopped vehicle, traffic cones or other obstacles.
- Adaptive cruise control systems performed best when following another vehicle more closely than AAA's recommended "three-second rule," which is supposed to give motorists the needed time to react to other cars or obstructions ahead of them.
Both vehicle owners and automakers share responsibility in knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the technology. AAA offered these recommendations:
- Even though manuals point out system limitations, the car industry needs to be more proactive in explaining them to customers.
- Motorists must do their part by closely reading the manual and becoming "thoroughly familiar with all the technology before operating the vehicle."
Autonomous braking and adaptive cruise control, especially when combined with adaptive headlights, have been shown to reduce crashes and related insurance claims. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), which evaluated the self-braking systems offered by Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Acura, found that property-damage liability claims fell by 14 percent compared to cars without.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's New Car Assessment Program website highlights crash-avoidance technologies to help car buyers research safer cars.
Car insurance discounts for safety features
Insurers do offer several discounts for vehicles equipped with familiar safety features that have been around for awhile -- but it's unlikely newer, more advanced safeguards will bring a rate cut any time soon, if ever.
Insurers claim it takes time to study a system's effectiveness and determine if there's an actuarial benefit to their business. Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute (III), says if a safety evolution is shown to reduce the number of crash claims, then insurers may pass some of the lower costs to consumers.
"I would think that there has to be clear proof that there are savings related to the reduction of accidents," she says. "It's likely that airbags were looked at over the course of many years" before they became discount-worthy.
Here are the more common safety feature car insurance discounts insurers do provide:
- Air bags -- Front air bags will get a discount; both dual front air bags and side air bags will nab an even bigger one. The discount is usually seen under your policy's medical payments and personal injury protection (PIP) section, and some insurers will also discount liability coverage.
- Anti-lock brakes -- A handful of states, including Florida, New Jersey and New York, require an insurer to provide a discount. But many insurers will reward one anyway if your vehicle has them. The discount, typically about 5 percent, may be applied to your liability, PIP, medical payments and collision coverage.
- Seat belts - Automatic seat belts usually snag a rate cut.
- Crash-resistant doors -- Some insurers provide a 5 percent or less discount.
- Electronic stability control (ESC) -- A few insurers have added a discount of about 5 percent when a vehicle comes with the factory-installed system.
- Daytime running lights -- A 5 percent discount off your liability, PIP, medical payments and collision coverage may be offered.