Computerized sensors that warn drivers they’re about to rear-end another vehicle or prevent other types of accidents are available on models made by every major auto manufacturer.
The problem, according to a U.S. safety agency and accident-prevention advocates, is that these life-saving technologies are optional equipment that makes its way onto a tiny minority of vehicles.
“We’re not talking about the future. This is not flying cars,” said Robert Molloy, director of the highway safety office at the National Transportation Safety Board, which on Monday called installation of such automation one of its “Most Wanted” safety enhancements. “This can be done.”
Frustrated by last year’s 7.2 percent jump in highway deaths to more than 35,000 — the steepest increase in 50 years — and the slow adoption of new technologies designed to address the problem, the NTSB has included several roadway safety issues on its Most Wanted list this year.
The agency is calling for action to reduce fatalities on multiple fronts: preventing distractions such as smartphone use, decreasing driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, and driving down fatigue-related crashes. A unifying solution that addresses at least a portion of all these issues is the suite of new safety technology, according to the safety board.
While fully autonomous cars are years away, sensors and computers have made incremental automation possible, NTSB board member Earl Weener said in an interview. For the moment, this new technology is mainly available only in luxury packages and not standard equipment.
The NTSB has no power to regulate and can only recommend safety improvements. It’s recent emphasis on automation is because the technology has matured. “The focus is on commercially available technology,” Weener said.
The technology is designed to address some of the biggest causes of crashes and deaths. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 2013 found that one-third of reported crashes began with a rear-end collision.
Devices can now sense when a vehicle is about to collide with another or an object on the road, issuing a warning to a driver. In some cases, these forward-collision warning systems are connected directly to a vehicle’s brakes and can automatically slow or stop.
Other systems can follow a highway’s lane markings and monitor whether it’s safe to change lanes. Side-facing cameras or sensors can also warn when another car is in the blind spot. So-called adaptive cruise control will sense the speed of the vehicle ahead, speeding up or slowing down to maintain a safe distance.
Because so many people die each year on the roads compared to other modes of transportation, adding these safety technologies has a higher potential impact, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said.
“It can save tens of thousands of lives a year,” Hart said at a press conference in Washington on Monday.
The auto industry supports the new technology, but is concerned that including it as standard equipment immediately will drive up the costs of new cars, Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in an e-mail. That, in turn, would create its own safety issue as consumers keep more older vehicles on the road, Newton said.
“Automakers are marketing these technologies aggressively and hope customers will consider them,” he said. “But in the end the final choice to purchase any of these technologies — and whether the cost impact moves the vehicle to a more expensive price range — really does rest with the customer.”
The Alliance doesn’t have data on costs of the new equipment, which is proprietary information for each manufacturer, Newton said.
‘Hands on Wheel’
The NTSB and the nonprofit National Safety Council, which last month joined the agency in the call for greater use of automated technology, are also asking the public to bone up on how to use these systems, Weener said. Consumers shouldn’t expect to drive a new car off the lot and understand how the safety systems work without at least a little study, he said.
“To the extent that the technology is still maturing, we would like to make sure people understand this,” he said. “They still need to keep hands on the wheel. They need to pay attention to following distance.”
NHTSA, which sets U.S. policy for most safety devices on the roads, has taken some steps to push for the new technology. Earlier this year, it reached an agreement with auto manufacturers to install automatic braking systems on all cars by 2022.
While the safety agency is pleased with the agreement, it would prefer to see the devices in cars sooner, Weener said.
“What we would really like to see, just like seat belts, is this equipment available as standard equipment,” he said.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles
The NTSB has also called for similar automation in other areas, such as U.S. railroads. Devices that ensure trains don’t exceed speed limits and automatically stop when required were also among the safety board’s Most Wanted list.
The agency also highlighted dangers from shipping dangerous goods, such as lithium batteries; called for better medical controls on drivers and pilots; sought improved designs in vehicles to minimize injuries; and recommended broader use of the crash-protected recorders known as black boxes.
While the majority of NTSB recommendations are eventually adopted, some areas have been resisted by state governments, such as lowering the legal blood-alcohol level and outlawing smartphone use while driving.
“It’s going to take one thing and that’s guts — guts on the part of our state legislators and legislatures to do the right thing,” board member Robert Sumwalt said. “The evidence is out there that too many people are dying due to alcohol-impaired driving and because of talking on cell phones.”
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