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Pedestrian Safety

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

4:15 PM PDT on October 28, 2009

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 offto the sides in a 60 degree angle. It will warn the driver with a redflashing light on the windshield if the car is on a collision coursewith a pedestrian.

If the driver doesn't react quick enough itwill brake automatically up to 25 km/h and stop by itself if the car istraveling 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 forpersonal responsibility and putting the driver in charge. On the otherhand, there are certain times when even the most cautious driver might beplagued by some shortcoming in perception or attention -- e.g., a few monthsago I almost hit a cyclist because I did not see them in my right-rear blindspot, and I wasn't expecting a cyclist to be there. It's unfortunate thatit doesn't work at night, given the overrepresentation of pedestrianfatalities at that time, partially having to do with visibility. But in anycase the real question is whether even with negative behavioral adaptationthere's still a net safety gain. And the other bright spot is at leastsomeone besides Honda is actually thinking about pedestrians from the car'spoint of view.

Interestingly, I've heard that some of the settings at which auto engineersplace these systems for activation are much more stringent than what driversthemselves seem to desire -- so maybe the car really would know best in thissituation.

And of course there's other things we could do, vis a vis technology, toimprove urban traffic safety, "Intelligent Speed Adaptation" being top ofthe agenda here. This too is a form of "collision avoidance," as obviouslythe 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.

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