Seriously, friends. You suck at driving. Get a computer behind the wheel to save your life

I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't drive like that


Much of the hype surrounding self-driving cars arises from the fact that people are terrible drivers. Automated systems, we're told, can help save lives.

Ignoring for a moment all the technical problems that still need to be solved before people can expect to be chauffeured by machine – dealing with adverse weather or unexpected road conditions and writing code that isn't overly deferential to pushy human drivers, for example – there's an increasing amount of data suggesting that some measure of automation makes driving less dangerous.

Research conducted by Jessica Cicchino, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – an industry-funded group focused on road safety – finds that automated driving assistance technology reduces both the likelihood and severity of certain types of automobile crashes.

Cicchino looked at data on how lane departure warning systems affected single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes. When these types of crashes of all different severities were considered in aggregate, she found that the driving assistance tech lowered the crash rate by 11 per cent and the rate of crashes with injuries by 21 per cent.

Yes, we realize that gear like lane wandering warning systems isn't full-blown self-driving car technology, but it is a good example of where humans could do with some computer help. And it shows that you don't need totally autonomous vehicles to make streets and highways safer: monitoring systems and super-cruise-control tech is a good start.

If every passenger vehicle in the US included a lane departure warning system, an estimated 85,000 police-reported crashes and 55,000 injuries would have been prevented in 2015, according to IIHS.

"This is the first evidence that lane departure warning is working to prevent crashes of passenger vehicles on US roads," Cicchino said in a statement. "Given the large number of fatal crashes that involve unintentional lane departures, technology aimed at preventing them has the potential to save a lot of lives."

The vehicles considered for the study all had a forward collision warning system in addition to a lane departure warning system. The systems communicated via audible alerts or vibration; they did not intervene to steer.

The IIHS notes that previous research has affirmed the beneficial effect of lane departure warnings, but the statistical modeling used left something to be desired. That less-than-stellar analysis found a crash rate reduction of 18 per cent and an injury crash rate reduction of 24 per cent.

A 2015 study of lane departure warnings on US trucks found a crash rate reduction of 48 per cent and a 2017 study of Volvo cars in Sweden found an injury crash rate reduction of about 53 per cent, Cicchino's paper says.

Incapacitated

In attempting to explain such a pronounced effect compared to Cicchino's more modest findings, the paper notes that US drivers often disable lane departure warning systems – more evidence we're our own worst enemy. Also, when drivers are incapacitated, warnings that they've drifted out of their lane don't do any good.

Cicchino conducted a similar study with blind spot detection systems and found they reduce lane-change crashes by 14 per cent and lane-change crashes resulting in injuries by 23 per cent. Were every US passenger vehicle to include blind spot detection, some 50,000 police-reported accidents could be prevented annually, she said.

In its report on a 2015 Tesla crash in Florida, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted [PDF] that improvement to its Autopilot system – the introduction of Autosteer – saw the crash rate of Tesla vehicles drop by almost 40 per cent.

While the IIHS says that fully automated driving is a long way off and human drivers will continue to work with automated systems for the foreseeable future, Germany intends to be ahead of the curve. On Wednesday, the German Ministry of Transportation issued ethical guidelines for automated driving.

Among the rules is a prohibition on weighing personal characteristics when a crash is deemed to be inevitable. In other words, in Germany at least, an out-of-control Tesla may not prioritize a jitney full of retirees over a school bus. ®

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