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As technology races ahead of us, we might have mixed feelings about the changes down the road. It’s undeniable that technological and engineering improvements have brought us to the point where we are driving the safest cars in history, with crash-related deaths on a downward trajectory. Estimates are that various automotive technologies have saved 614,000 lives. Believe it or not, that’s only slightly fewer than the number of people who live within the Baltimore city limits, estimated in 2014 at 622,793. That’s a lot of lives saved.

Some of the technologies that have saved lives are the many improvements to the basics: braking, steering, and safety restraints. Some other new technologies, such as stability control, do help drivers avoid accidents. But in-dash infotainment systems, including music systems, the internet, email, and hands-free cell phone systems, have been shown to increase the chance of accidents.

The Power of Distraction

Hands-free usage of cell phones is legal in most states unless you are classed as a novice driver—generally meaning someone under 18, except in Illinois (under 19) and Indiana (under 21). But that doesn’t mean there are no risks to hands-free phones. You could still experience something called cognitive distraction, which simply means you aren’t paying attention to your driving—your eyes are on the road, but they aren’t seeing, and your mind isn’t on your driving.

Cell phones account for 26 percent of all accidents, including hands-free usage. Distracted driving has been implicated in as many as 40 percent of all accidents, and—get this—driver error has been named as the cause in up to 90 percent of all accidents.

Unfortunately, many of the very latest technologies concern hands-free driving and driverless vehicles, with the potential to create more havoc rather than curbing it.
Automotive Improvements Do Not Always Improve Safety

The technology in crash-mitigation systems that automatically puts on the brakes if you follow too closely, it is said by some, could give drivers a false sense of security. After all, if you don’t really need to worry about rear-ending the vehicle in front of you, and you have infotainment technology waiting to be played with, you might be encouraged to give less attention to certain aspects of your driving. Some cars already have forward-crash-mitigation systems, and those that don’t likely soon will.

On the horizon are cars that drive themselves. Although completely driverless cars are a few years off, General Motors plans to sell Cadillacs in 2016 that feature no-hands driving on the highway. Audi has a car coming out next year that can direct itself through traffic jams. Then there’s the Google experiment with driverless cars, which you’ve probably heard of. The cars have had very few accidents, but the ones that have been involved in accidents indicate that driverless cars have to start acting a bit more like a human and less like a robot.

And . . . would you believe trucks that drive themselves are coming soon as well? In fact, they’re here. The first self-driving truck appeared on Nevada roads May 6, 2015. Daimler, the truck manufacturer, says that the trucks will be in testing phase for a decade. They’ll need to drive at least a million miles with no major problems before they will be considered ready for our highways. The jury is still out on whether self-driving trucks will be a bane or a boon. As 8.7 million jobs are trucking-related, it’s certain that self-driving trucks will eventually have an impact on available jobs in our economy.

Final Thoughts

Infotainment systems and cell phones, even hands-free usage, create hazards due to lack of attention. Crash-mitigation systems, although beneficial, could tempt people to pay less attention to other driving tasks. And with driverless cars and trucks just around the corner, we need to consider the potential liabilities of the coming flood of new technologies now. While there is always a time lag between the arrival of new technology and the law’s ability to catch up, perhaps we can shorten that time lag by being legally proactive. The risks to human life mandate that we must carefully weigh all the pros and cons of our brave new automotive world.

Submitted by Steve Heisler
Steve Heisler is a personal injury attorney in Baltimore, MD. Mr. Heisler has been focusing solely on personal injury cases since 1996.


Reader Feedback

"This topic is timely and correct. Hands free in-car calls still cause distraction while driving. Handling the mental process of all the things necessary to drive as well as to carry on a conversation, means that focus is divided, which is also called “divided attention.” Divided attention means, humans can only devote focus to so many things before our brain starts to remove focus on one activity to devote to another. This is extremely dangerous when one of those activities is driving a vehicle. Your life is worth pulling over for 30 seconds to devote attention to a phone call, then resume driving after you are done." - Marty Judnich