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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Retain and hone driving skills

Will drivers’ skills diminish with declining use?  With automotive technology providing ever-increasing driver assists, it’s a question worth exploring.

Akin to a concern that the proliferation of smart phones and social networks is degrading human interpersonal skills, there’s a possibility that emerging vehicle technology may make drivers lazy.  At a time when collectively improved driver skills may be partially responsible for shrinking traffic deaths, it would be a shame for drivers to reverse that trend by becoming dependent on emerging driver aids.

For example, a collision-avoidance system applies brakes in time to avoid a rear-end collision automatically if the driver fails to do so.  If a driver depends on that, it follows that they may let their guard down.

The “race” for such technology may lead to getting more than we want on new vehicles, driving prices up.  More notably, relying on assists such as automatic collision-avoidance will lessen drivers’ concern for maintaining following distance, expecting that the vehicle will protect them from colliding with forward objects.

On the topic of getting more than we ask for, auto manufacturers have developed yet another air bag, between the front seats, to protect driver and passenger heads from bumping one another in side-impact crashes — and each airbag adds around $1000 to a vehicle’s cost.  I know it’s a radical concept, but helmets would accomplish the same thing.  While it’s known that deaths from vehicle crashes are commonly the result of head injuries, helmet use is a taboo subject in the automotive field (thankfully, because I sure don’t want to wear one while driving).  Conversely, there is little resistance to placing as many as 11 air bags in vehicles while enforcing helmet laws for motorcyclists and bicyclists. But I digress.

I would hate to see drivers become lax about following distance because the vehicle will brake for them, or begin driving aggressively because they are protected by airbags.

So, how much of the driving task are drivers going to give up?  There indeed may be a future in which cars drive themselves, and along way manufacturers will produce many driver-assist features vying for consumer adoption.

The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to know exactly what degree of computer-control is acceptable to average drivers.  In a research project, a group of volunteers got behind the wheels of a high-tech fleet to help answer that question.

The test cars’ computers communicated their speed and locations to each other, and monitored traffic signals.  The computers also detected and warned motorists of upcoming hazards, such as an oncoming vehicle about to make a left turn.  Again, will drivers see hazards if they routinely depend on their vehicle to “see” them?  And, of course, the test vehicles had the ability to put on the brakes if the driver failed to do so.

The government is sharing the results of the study with eight participating vehicle manufacturers so they can sift through the flood of upcoming technology and make production decisions.

Hopefully, this study can help sort out the items best suited for real-world driving, and that we don’t end up getting more than we want. 

Until the age of full automation arrives for motor vehicles, try to retain your operational skills even though your next vehicle will perform many of them for you.  Not all vehicles have tire pressure monitoring; in those cases, drivers must retain the ability to use a manual pressure gauge.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at