Are "Safer" Cars a Menace to Cyclists?

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Cycling Safety

Are "Safer" Cars a Menace to Cyclists?

Today’s papers report of a new government safety initiative: Cars talking to each other, for example, to warn the driver that cars ahead are stopped at a red light, or that another car is about to ignore a stop sign and blow through the intersection. A pilot project in Ann Arbor, MI, will have 2800 cars “talking to each other,” to gather data about the system’s effectiveness before it is made mandatory in all new cars.
“This is a big day for safety,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the University of Michigan, as the experiment was kicked off. I am not so sure. Does more technology make driving safer? Or does it lull drivers into a sense of safety, and makes them less alert?
If I know that my car will warn others if I “miss” a stop sign, do I still look for signs as much as I did before? And if I don’t look out as much any longer, what else will I miss?
My biggest concerns about this new technology are the people it leaves out: Cyclists and pedestrians will not be equipped with transmitters. As a modern driver is approaching an intersection and relying on the sensors to tell whether other traffic is approaching, he or she will be less likely to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. I also can imagine the “talking car” flashing an alert about cars stopped a block ahead, even though the driver really should be watching for a cyclist approaching from the right.
“I didn’t see you” already is the most common excuse we get when somebody almost hit us. Really? You didn’t see a large, bright, moving object that was just 30 feet away?
The sad truth is that with many new cars, the driver might as well say “I could not see you.” Modern cars have thick pillars for rollover protection, and thick padding on top of these thick pillars to protect the occupants’ heads if they slam against them in accidents. All this extra “safety” has created huge blind spots. In fact, the “safety device” used in the experiment (see photo at the top of this post) creates an additional blind spot and adds distraction right in the driver’s field of vision.

A few years ago, I almost was hit by a driver in a first-generation Honda Odyssey minivan (above). She had a stop sign, I had the right-of-way. She stopped and I proceeded. Then she started as well, oblivious to my approach. After I came to a stop, rear wheel off the ground, inches from her passenger door, she rolled down the window and apologized: “I am so sorry, but this car has a huge blind spot at the front, and I did not see you.” Peering inside, I could see that there were two thick pillars with a tiny triangular window in between, creating a blind spot that extended from about 1 o’clock to 2 o’clock – exactly the place where a cyclist or a pedestrian coming from the right would be.
Why is this legal? Despite our obsession with safety, we seem to assume that accidents just happen, and that we can’t do anything to prevent them. In addition to the padded pillars, the Honda was equipped with airbags, so that the driver would be protected when they hit the things they could not see.
There is increasing evidence that this approach is not working well. The United States has the safest cars in the world (mostly because our cars are bigger than most other countries’), yet our traffic fatalities are among the highest in the developed world, and unlike the rest of the world, they aren’t decreasing much, even as our cars get safer. It appears that as our cars get safer, our driving gets worse.
What would happen if we used the money spent on airbags for driver training instead? What would happen if we stopped making accidents “survivable”? Would the quality of the driving improve? Would drivers pay more attention if they realized that each drive might be their last?
As it is, I feel that attempts to make cars safer by correcting for drivers’ errors are a real menace for cyclists and pedestrians. I feel that we should encourage drivers to pay more attention to their surroundings, not less. I hope the study in Ann Arbor looks at that. Will any reduction in car-to-car accidents by the “talking cars” come at the expense of an increase of car-to-bike and car-to-pedestrian accidents?

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