Labor Day Travelers Switch Off Their Cars’ Safety Systems At Their Own Peril

Those planning an end-of-summer road trip over the Labor Day weekend are advised to take extra caution when traversing the nation’s highways. That’s because traffic fatalities, after years of steady decline, continue an upward trend that began at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 9,560 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes during the first quarter of 2022. That represents an increase of about seven percent over the same period a year ago, and is the highest number of first-quarter fatalities recorded in a decade.

The jump coincides with an increase in miles driven, with motorists racking up 40 billion more of them in the first quarter this year than in 2021 (a 5.6 percent surge) when more Americans were working and otherwise isolating at home.

Ironically, fatalities are rising despite the proliferation of high-tech safety gear in today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs that can help motorists avoid getting into collisions in the first place. They’re known in the industry as advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS), and are now being offered as standard or optional equipment in all size and price classes.

Unfortunately, ADAS systems are of no use when they’re deactivated by drivers who find the associated beeps, buzzes, and other alerts, plus the occasional braking or steering intervention, to be unduly annoying and/or distracting.

According to data collected by Erie Insurance, an estimated 17 percent of forward automatic emergency warning/braking systems are purposefully switched off for just that reason. Likewise, 21 percent of motorists are guilty of disabling lane departure systems for insistent reminders their cars’ tires are touching lane markers or road edges. And though the systems tend to be less insistent, an estimated nine percent of drivers switch off blind spot warning.

And yet, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) contends that each of these sophisticated systems, which rely on an array of sensors and cameras, can prove to be real life-savers. For those who may still be unfamiliar with today’s ADAS, here’s a quick overview of the technology, and their real-world benefits according to the IIHS, based on police-reported crashes and insurance claims for vehicles with and without the systems:

Automatic Emergency Braking

This system monitors the road ahead and will warn the driver to apply the brakes if it determines that a crash with another vehicle or other obstruction is likely. It will then automatically apply the brakes at full force if the driver isn’t responding quickly enough to prevent or at least reduce the severity of an imminent forward collision. The IIHS says this system prevents 50 percent of potential front-to-rear crashes, and 56 percent of such crashes with injuries.

Pedestrian Detection

Many auto-braking systems can also spot and help prevent collisions with pedestrians, bicyclists and even large animals that may cross a vehicle’s path. The IIHS estimates they cut car-to-pedestrian crashes by 27 percent, and reduce injuries in these collisions by 30 percent.

Lane Departure Warning

This system warns the driver when the vehicle is inadvertently touching or crossing lane markers. The alert will not activate if the turn signals are engaged, however, as would be the proper course of action before changing lanes. Some systems will automatically nudge the vehicle back into the center of the lane, either by steering or braking intervention. IIHS data indicates the system stops 14 percent of lane-change crashes and prevents 23 percent of injuries in those that do occur.

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert

Typically bundled with blind spot warning, this function will warn the driver if another car is approaching while backing out of a garage or parking space. Cars that are so equipped are 22 percent less prone to get into back-up crashes, according to the IIHS.

Rear Automatic Braking

Used in conjunction with rear cross-traffic alert, this ADAS will automatically engage the brakes to prevent hitting a pedestrian or other vehicle in its rearward path. When combined with a backup camera and rear parking sensors, the IIHS says the system helps avoid 78 percent of backing collisions.

The bottom line: As beneficial as the latest ASAS can be, the IIHS cautions that they’re still not infallible. Lane departure warning sensors, for example, may not be able to spot markers or road edges on pavement that’s not well-marked or is covered with snow. Sensors may not work up to their capabilities in low-light conditions or at certain speeds. What’s more, pedestrian detection systems have been found to be effective only during daytime hours or on well-lit roads.

Finally, no matter how much hardware a given vehicle packs to help prevent crashes, its most important safety feature remains the driver. Motorists need to heed posted speed limits and both remain sober and engaged with the task at hand without distractions to remain 100 percent effective. Safety first, right?

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