Automakers promoting unsafe driving through new technologies

7/26/09

By JOSEPH SZCZESNY
Of The Oakland Press

Carmakers ­— and I do mean all carmakers — love to talk about the safety of their vehicles. Indeed, big companies such as Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Mercedes-Benz emphasize safety in their basic sales pitch to consumers and they have for the past two decades.

Honda, for example, maintains it has an explicit policy of building the safest vehicles in each and every segment in which it competes.

Only last week, Ford trumpeted the success of the Ford Focus in tests conducted by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.

“The 35-mpg Ford Focus, loaded with safety technologies — including six advanced air bags, stability control and lightweight, high-strength materials — earned a ‘Top Safety Pick’ rating from the International Institute of Highway Safety. Ford is launching its exclusive MyKey teen safety technology on the Focus this summer,” Ford said in a press release.

“Ford has the most vehicles that have earned ‘Top Safety Pick’ of any automaker,” the release added.

The fine ratings are a tribute to Ford’s engineers and assemblers. In addition, the new MyKey system is a very clever way for parents to put some controls on teen drivers. It not only limits the speed of the vehicle to 80 mph, it also reduces the sound from the entertainment system.

On top of that, automakers have avidly supported the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Nevertheless, as a group, automakers have fallen down in fighting or speaking out against another practice that is making American roads and highways steadily more dangerous — talking on cellphones and even texting while operating a motor vehicle.

If anything, carmakers across the industry have generally become more reluctant to speak out against the practice of chatting on cell phones.

Yes, I’m guilty too. However, I try to avoid it and if the call is important or not so important, I prefer to park and talk rather than drive and talk.

Moreover, I also have had the opportunity to go through Ford’s $7 million dollar simulator in Dearborn where the automaker tests driver reaction under various conditions. 

The simulation in Ford’s lab indicates very clearly that talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as climbing behind the wheel of a vehicle after several glasses of wine.

In fact, Ford’s researchers indicate that the results are basically consistent across various age groups and between sexes.

I think that most Americans would be seriously reluctant to climb behind the wheel after knocking back a half-dozen vodka tonics. However, judging from what I see on Telegraph, they don’t have any reservations about yaking on a cell phone. 

It’s known instantly when I’m behind a driver talking on the phone because their car seems to wobble inside the lane and they slow down, which is exactly the behavior predicted by the simulation run by Ford and other researchers.

Drunk drivers, quite rightly, face very stiff penalties if they’re caught behind the wheel. 

However, cell-phone talkers now appear to be responsible for more fatal accidents than drunk drivers. Estimates are that cell phones are now involved in more than 2,000 fatal accidents every year.

 As far as I can see, however, people talking on a cell phone never face any kind penalties, even though they are as dangerous as the inebriated motorists and usually could be ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic.

In addition, the situation is only going to get worse and more overwhelming as more of the so-called “hands-free” systems that enable drivers to talk through headsets or microphones linked to the car’s entertainment system are installed.

For today’s teenagers, cell phones are old school technology.  They text, in large part, because their parents don’t.

The hands-free technology offers only an illusion of safety by contributing to the notion that it’s fine to talk and drive.

In fact, carmakers actually seem to be increasing the risks.

Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, thanks to a program launched years ago, will offer a system that allows you to check your e-mail while in the car. The technology behind the system, needless to say, is very impressive and very sophisticated and it will probably only add to a culture of unsafe driving.