Will “Crash-Proof” Cars Make Drivers More Dangerous?

Via TreeHugger, Copenhagenize
reports that Volvo is in the final stages of testing technology to
improve safety for people outside its products — a "pedestrian
detection" system available in S60 models next year:

It is meant to spot all pedestrians in front of the car as well as off
to the sides in a 60 degree angle. It will warn the driver with a red
flashing light on the windshield if the car is on a collision course
with a pedestrian.

If the driver doesn’t react quick enough it
will brake automatically up to 25 km/h and stop by itself if the car is
traveling under 25 km/h.

The system cannot recognize bicyclists yet, but engineers are working on it.

first blush, a car on the lookout for pedestrians seems like a
can’t-lose safety measure. But a lot depends on how drivers compensate,
knowing that their vehicles can mitigate their own lapses in judgment
and attention. Might a safer, smarter car lead people to take more
risks and exercise less care behind the wheel?

Since this is exactly the sort of question that comes up again and again in Traffic (recipient of the 2008 Streetsie for best book), I emailed author Tom Vanderbilt to get his take on the merits and drawbacks of Volvo’s new tech. Here’s what he wrote back:

It’s hard not to be of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m all for
personal responsibility and putting the driver in charge. On the other
hand, there are certain times when even the most cautious driver might be
plagued by some shortcoming in perception or attention — e.g., a few months
ago I almost hit a cyclist because I did not see them in my right-rear blind
spot, and I wasn’t expecting a cyclist to be there. It’s unfortunate that
it doesn’t work at night, given the overrepresentation of pedestrian
fatalities at that time, partially having to do with visibility. But in any
case the real question is whether even with negative behavioral adaptation
there’s still a net safety gain. And the other bright spot is at least
someone besides Honda is actually thinking about pedestrians from the car’s
point of view.

Interestingly, I’ve heard that some of the settings at which auto engineers
place these systems for activation are much more stringent than what drivers
themselves seem to desire — so maybe the car really would know best in this

And of course there’s other things we could do, vis a vis technology, to
improve urban traffic safety, "Intelligent Speed Adaptation" being top of
the agenda here. This too is a form of "collision avoidance," as obviously
the slower you’re going, the more time to avoid a crash.

should note that the pedestrian detection system will be optional on
those new Volvos, part of a $3,500 premium package. So for now, this
potentially life-saving tech remains a luxury item.

  • patrick

    This might have some benefit, I feel that drivers in general are spending about 0% of their time looking for peds & bikes, they are really only concerned about hitting other cars, if even that. So this might save some lives.

    I think a better idea would be to include wireless speed limiters, so cars would be prevented from going faster than the posted speed. There would be a signal broadcast, or even a barcode like speed sign that cars could interpret and then the car would be prevented from going faster. Although then you’d have to install the necessary infrastructure… There are probably better ways to do this.

  • The link to Intelligent Speed Adaptation is very interesting. This could make it possible to set speed limit that are safer than we have today.

    Currently, it is illegal under California law to set a limit lower than 85 percent of drivers are already driving. If you want people to drive more slowly, you have to go through the extra expense and nuisance of putting in traffic calming devices.

    If Intelligent Speed Adaptation were made mandatory, we could (for example) set a 15 mph speed limit near schools or on bicycle boulevards and enforce it electronically. 100% of the drivers would have to obey the speed limit law on all streets, which would mean fewer deaths and injuries.

  • ZA

    An intriguing technology that seems optimal for the conditions it is being reared in. I wonder how useful it would really be in most US contexts…just consider these very common scenarios:

    – The driver on a long linear route, probably going 45mph on a road that is marked 35mph, and probably should be 25mph or less. This can be rural, suburban, or urban. Will the system be good enough to detect a pedestrian (perhaps on a traffic island, perhaps coming around a tree on a hidden path) to significantly reduce injury or death? Probably not.

    – Bumper-to-bumper, the tempting opening for the driver to pull into a gap in the next lane over, and the out-of-nowhere cyclist, motorcyclist, or pedestrian. How well can a system detect oncoming traffic when it has that many blind corners?

    Yes, I do think this technology will serve to diminish driver skill.

    Important R&D, but it’s not near the optimum. The optimum being: a fully fresh and responsible driver with well-tested licensing OR a technology at least as good as a train or bus driver at the peak of their performance to render acceptable safety to the passengers.

  • zsolt

    Computers will save us all!!! NOT


San Francisco Increasingly Dangerous for Pedestrians

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that will focus on how to improve streets for pedestrians. Wide intersections like this one at Mission and 6th make it dangerous for pedestrians to cross. We’re all being encouraged to exercise more and drive less. But sadly, more people walking in conjunction with […]

Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Good Cities for Walking

Editor’s note: Streetsblog San Francisco is thrilled to present a three-part series this week by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. This is part two. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the […]

Chicago Unveils Its Ambitious Pedestrian Safety Plan

Yesterday, the city of Chicago rolled out a sweeping new plan for pedestrian safety [PDF]. With some 250 recommendations — including traffic-calming measures like pedestrian islands, chicanes and midblock curb bumpouts — Chicago joins cities like New York and Portland in formalizing a plan to meet targets for reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths. Chicago Department […]

Testing New Designs for Pedestrian Safety

Traffic calming can take a number of different forms, from speed tables to roundabouts, but CNN recently ran a story about an unconventional new traffic calming pilot in Vancouver, Canada, that has people literally doing double takes. Traffic managers there painted a three dimensional image onto the street that appears to drivers to resemble a […]