Is Smart Tech in Cars Really Making Us Safer?

By Damon Poeter

It’s heartening to see improved car safety features added to vehicles, but it can be tough to keep track of all this innovation in order to make informed choices when buying a car.

What’s more, it’s not always clear if safe driving technology always makes us safer.

Using Smart Tech Safely

Many drivers today take advantage of GPS navigation assistance to receive advance warning of upcoming highway exits and advice on when to move to the correct lane to safely leave the roadway.

That can reduce the instances of drivers trying to cross several lanes of fast-moving traffic to get to an off-ramp, says Rich Lunsford, advice director at USAA and a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner.

But drivers have to be careful about how they use navigation assistance. Fiddling with a cell phone’s map app or the in-vehicle nav system while on the highway can lead to distracted driving and an increased risk of an accident, he says.

The Cutting Edge of Car Tech

In the past, automakers, civil engineers and lawmakers mainly focused on making cars and the roads they drive on safer. But today, there is a new and growing area of innovation – using smart technology to assist and coach drivers to become better at keeping themselves and others safe, Lunsford says.

If you’re in the market for a new car or looking at pre-owned vehicles that are only a few years old, here are some of the latest driver assist and warning systems you will likely encounter:

  • Voice-enabled navigation and entertainment systems
  • Front-collision warning systems
  • Lane-departure warning systems
  • Auto-braking systems
  • Blind-spot detection systems

“Just be mindful of how much you rely on such safety features. If you become less engaged when driving because you’re relying on your car’s warning systems to bail you out of a jam, that could be a problem,” Lunsford says.

The Robot Cars Are Coming

We’re also beginning to see semi-autonomous driving systems and remote-control capabilities in higher-end cars. These systems replicate some of the functionality of fully autonomous, driverless cars.

Automatic pilot. Some cars now include features that allow a driver to hand over control of a car to an onboard self-driving system in stop-and-go traffic or while cruising down the highway. Other cars allow a driver to exit the vehicle and instruct it to park itself using remote-control buttons on a keyfob.

Driver monitoring. There are also in-vehicle systems being developed to monitor driver alertness and take protective measures, such as sensors that can detect if a driver’s hands have left the steering wheel and engage autonomous driving features to prevent a mishap.

The Evolution of Driving Safety

Technology has helped to make driving much safer over the years than it was when the first hand crank-started cars were sharing dusty roads with horse-drawn carriages – despite far more miles driven at much higher speeds by today’s drivers.

In 1921, there were 24 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles driven (VMT) in the U.S. By the 1980s, that number had been reduced to fewer than three fatalities per 100 million VMT. Today, there is just over one fatality per 100 million VMT.

There are multiple factors that can be credited for this improvement in driving safety, Lunsford says. Those include, but aren’t limited to: safer cars, safer roads, stronger enforcement of traffic laws, better emergency response to traffic accidents and improved medical treatment administered to accident victims.

“When you look at improvements in automobile safety, it’s come in three main stages. Making roads safer was probably the earliest effort, then the automotive industry started making cars themselves safer to drive and, finally, the most recent and growing trend is training people to be safer drivers, often by assisting them with technology,” he says.

Making Safer Roads

Here are some of the major advances in road safety:

1901: Speed limits for motorized vehicles in the U.S.

1906: Drunk-driving laws

1909: Paved roads for cars

1911: Center-line markers on road surfaces

1914: Electric traffic lights

1930: Geometric road and highway design

1934: Electric signals at pedestrian crosswalks

1956: Federal Aid Highway Act 

1960s: Computerization of traffic lights

21st Century: IoT sensors installed on roads, highways, bridges

Making Safer Cars

Here are some of the ways automakers have made cars safer:

1902: Disc brakes

1906: Enclosed car cabins

1919: Safety glass for windshields

1921: Hydraulic brakes in passenger cars

1934: Crash tests

1959: Three-point seat belts, crumple zones

1962: Child safety seats

1967: Crash sensors, production airbags

1971: Modern antilock brakes

1987: Computerized engine controls

21st Century: Semi-autonomous driving systems

Making Safer Drivers

Here are some of the major developments that encourage people to drive more safely:

1903: State driver’s licenses

1908: State driving exams

1934: High school driver’s education courses

1964: Defensive driving courses

21st Century: Distracted driving laws, driver-assist and driver-coaching systems

Smart technology has helped make cars safer, but it still takes smarts on the part of drivers to use it effectively. It’s best to keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and mind on the drive—no matter how much smart tech your next car has.

Are you in the market for a new vehicle? Let USAA help you get your dream car.

Richard Lunsford is an advice director within the Enterprise Advice Group at USAA and a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner. He holds the designations of Chartered Financial Consultant, Chartered Life Underwriter and Registered Corporate Coach. With more than 20 years of experience in the financial services and insurance industry, Rich has a wealth of knowledge advising clients on asset allocation, retirement planning, portfolio construction and risk management.


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Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete the CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

The marks of CLU are the property of the American College and may be used by individuals who have successfully completed the initial and ongoing certification requirements for this designation.

The marks of ChFC are the property of the American College and may be used by individuals who have successfully completed the initial and ongoing certification requirements for this designation.


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