As cars get safer, drivers take more risks

By Ed Leefeldt

/ MoneyWatch

Here's a scary thought for those who take to the highway. As cars become safer, with new and more advanced features, drivers use them to engage in ever more risky behavior. One such activity: taking your eyes off the road for the "length of time it takes to travel a football field," or even longer.

A new survey by the nation's largest auto insurer, State Farm, entitled "Are We Driving Dumber in Smarter Cars?" found that drivers with cars equipped with adaptive cruise control or lane keeping assistance said they were almost twice as likely to use video chat while behind the wheel compared with those whose cars didn't have this advanced technology.

"These systems are meant to assist drivers, not replace them," warns State Farm Assistant Vice President Laurel Straub, who handles research for the insurer. "These innovations are designed to make our roadways safer."

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But that's not always the way it's working. In fact, the percentage of inattentive drivers rises when it comes to other bad behaviors like engaging with cell phone apps, manually entering a phone number and holding the handset while talking. More than half of all drivers with high-tech cars admit to doing this. As for reading and sending text messages, the percentage of drivers with advanced safety tech who get away with it jumps to 62%.

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State Farm also asked 1,023 registered drivers 18 and older who participated in the survey if they would take their eyes off the road "for less than five seconds." Half said they would. However, when driving 65 miles per hour, it only takes 3.2 seconds for your car to go the length of a football field. "Anything can happen in 100 yards," said Straub.

Unlike ordinary cruise control, adaptive cruise control not only sets your car's speed but automatically adjusts it to the speed of the vehicle in front of you to maintain a safe distance behind it. In most instances, lane keeping assistance enables a car to stay within its lane.

But they create a sense of "misplaced trust," said Straub. "The driver thinks the car can do more than it should."

Far less than fully automated

The Society of Automotive Engineers characterizes these safety features as Level 2, which is much lower than Level 5 that signifies full automation. "There will have to be more tech advances before we see fully automated vehicles on the highway," said Straub. "And it won't happen anytime soon."

But even a fully automated vehicle isn't safe all the time. Such was the case when an self-driving Uber SUV killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018.

State Farm recommends that drivers:

First published on July 17, 2019 / 8:14 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

Ed Leefeldt

Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.

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