Uh-oh: Advanced driver assistance systems are making us all bad drivers

A new report suggests the latest semi-autonomous features on the market are eroding our attention behind the wheel.

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Advanced driver assistance systems are becoming on the norm even on midlevel cars. For safety advocates that seems like good news: Systems designed to prevent crashes should, after all, result in fewer crashes.

But what if that thinking is flawed? A new report from AAA suggests that might be the case and that our increasing use of driver assistance systems may actually be resulting in higher rates of distracted driving.

"This study drives home that engaged drivers are the key to staying safe," says Stefan Heck, CEO of Nauto, which makes driver monitoring technology. "Current ADAS only look at what's in front of the vehicle and we know 94% of collisions involve human error which you can only detect by understanding what the driver is doing. Distracted driving is surging as the next major health epidemic, the top cause of fatal and injury collisions. It's imperative that automakers embed technology that doesn't lull drivers into a false sense of security--and instead keeps them focused on the road no matter what."

The point of advanced driver assistance systems, of course, is to increase traffic safety and driving comfort. But it's important to remember that this is automation at an intermediate level, not full automation. What that means is there's still a huge safety burden on the driver to maintain control of the vehicle and situational awareness. 

The AAA report set out to determine whether these advanced safety systems actually resulted in drivers allowing themselves to become distracted at a higher rate. AAA teamed up with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which used data from two previous driving studies.

And the results aren't great.

Data from one of these studies indicates that the simultaneous use of advanced driver assistance systems was associated with a 50% increase in the odds of engaging in any form of secondary task and an 80% increase in the odds of engaging in visual and/or manual secondary tasks, compared to the same drivers who were not using the automated system. 

In the other study, speeding related errors were present 19% of the time when driver assistance systems were in use, a higher rate than when driver assistance was available but turned off.

In the same study, drowsy driving was present more often when driver assistance systems were active (5.4% of the time versus 3.4% when no system was active), indicating a possible detrimental effect of automation use associated with driver alertness.

There was some variance in the data. Remember the AAA report looked at two datasets, and at times the results were at odds with one another, with one dataset suggesting a stronger or weaker correlation between use of driver assistance systems and distracted driving.

But that variance is also meaningful. One of the datasets, for example, was collected when these semi-autonomous systems were still quite novel in cars, meaning most of the study group hadn't had much previous exposure. Distracted driving among this group was typically lower when the autonomous systems were in use. 

So why, then, did the other data set indicate that distracted driving increased with the use of these safety systems? The answer may lie in the exposure of the test group to the technology. In the second data set, the test group was more familiar with lane assist and other driver assistance technologies. Because the systems were no longer novel, attention seemed to wane more.

The implication is that over time, these safety systems really can erode our attention. And that's dangerous, because it could indicate both that we're becoming less conscientious behind the wheel and that technologies meant to keep us safe will actually have diminishing returns over time.

The takeaway? No matter how smart your car is, it pays to pay attention.