If you've read my blog for any length of time you might remember that I subscribe to the theory that safer cars make for worse drivers. My argument all along has been that when you seal people into a quiet cocoon full of entertainment gear, surrounded by safety aids, the drivers begin to assume that the car will save them from their own bad driving. (most recently, see the Driver Education and Toyota Wants To Steer For You posts)
It seems that my theory on this actually has some substance. New research suggests just that - extra safety equipment in cars gives drivers a false sense of security and leads to them taking more risks.
The TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) in England studied crash statistics from 2000 to 2010 and statistical models were developed to look at casualty trends and the effects of car secondary safety improvements. They discovered that, while the number of people seriously injured in road accidents dropped for the first six years of that period, the number of fatalities barely changed. Bear in mind that during the same period there were great improvements in car safety levels with the introduction of more airbags and standard ABS, stability control and traction control on most cars. On higher-end vehicles, things like preemptive braking, radar-assisted cruise control and lane departure warning systems were also becoming commonplace. That all resulted in an increasing number of cars being awarded a five-star crash test safety rating by Euro NCAP.
These advances should have cut fatality rates, but the report's authors warn increasing safety levels may have been counter-productive:
"The reason that the fatality trend was not decreasing up to 2006... may be due to driver confidence – additional safety features in and on vehicles provide additional confidence and some drivers may have adapted their behaviour (ie drive more recklessly) as a result."
The report does go on to say that after 2006, fatalities dropped although the analysis shows that this is most likely because the economic downturn which appears to have had a beneficial effect on driver behaviour, with less speeding and drink driving. The decrease in overall traffic also contributed, especially the large reduction in HGV traffic, and a fall in the number of young male drivers.
The report is available on the TRL website for a small fee.
The TRL are not the first large study institute to come to this conclusion; the American Institute for Highway Safety published similar findings last year - you can read about those in this blog post.
This all begs the question then : why do manufacturers keep loading cars up with this stuff if it's now being proven to be of little or no use? Surely they should be removing this stuff, simplifying and lightening cars and improving fuel economy and safety as a result? Frankly, the more a driver is involved in the act of driving, the safer the roads become because concentration levels have to be higher. That's why drivers who started out on motorbikes are statistically safer car drivers, and that's why cars with manual gearboxes are involved in less accidents - motorcyclists and drivers of manual cars are both more involved in the act of driving (or riding).