Ever wondered aloud what the hell that flashing light in your side mirror was? Or jerked your leg because you felt some phantom buzzing beneath your thigh? Or freaked out when your car spookily guided itself back between the lane lines without your input? You’re not alone. Many other motorists don’t understand the advanced safety features on their own cars.
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A survey of 2,000 drivers conducted by the University of Iowa’s Transportation and Vehicle Safety Research Division found that 40 percent of respondents had experienced a situation in which “their vehicle acted or behaved in some way they were not expecting. Meanwhile, 32 percent of respondents encountering one of these mystery situations reported having sought information online and elsewhere about why their vehicle behaved that way. Turns out, their vehicles’ advanced safety features were functioning just as intended, but the drivers weren’t aware of what those features were or what they’re supposed to do.
The National Consumer Survey of Driving Safety — conducted as the cornerstone of a $17 million grant-funded auto-safety and public-education program — in part sought to identify blind spots in drivers’ understanding of vehicle systems to improve awareness and reduce crashes. The study focused on nine advanced safety technologies: antilock brakes, cruise control, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, backup cameras and backup sensor warnings, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, forward collision warning and lane departure warning.
Lane departure warning and tire pressure monitoring systems were among the three least understood technologies, with 36 percent and 45 percent of survey respondents, respectively, reporting uncertainty about these systems. But by far the most misunderstood safety feature was adaptive cruise control — with more than 65 percent of respondents reporting confusion.
Unsurprisingly, exposure to the different technologies played a major part in how well they were understood. Illustrating this point, owners of model-year 2014 vehicles — those most likely at the time of the survey to have the latest technologies — showed the highest rates of exposure. Still respondents by and large had not yet adapted to adaptive cruise control.
“The majority of respondents had heard of, been exposed to, or interacted with all of the technologies, with the exception of adaptive cruise control,” researchers stated. “Only 35 percent of all respondents had any level of exposure to adaptive cruise control.”
Backup cameras were rated highest in terms of features most sought by buyers, followed by blind spot monitoring. Commensurate with the survey results, adaptive cruise control proved the most exotic.
“The level of confusion about features that have been standard in American cars was really surprising,” said Daniel McGehee, director of the Transportation and Vehicle Research Division at the University of Iowa. “The little details about how some of these systems work are really important when we’re talking about safety. We need to do a better job of making sure consumers are comfortable with them.”
That’s where the university’s partnership with the National Safety Council comes in. The Itasca, Ill.-based nonprofit safety-advocacy organization and the university have joined forces on a national campaign to educate drivers on crash-prevention technologies. The campaign’s website is MyCarDoesWhat.org and contains educational materials about auto safety features, including explanations of their functions, videos, graphics and other info.
On its homepage, the site lists 28 advanced safety features next to those features’ respective symbols so users can recognize them in their vehicles’ displays. Site visitors can click on each feature for its detailed explanation and how it works.
For example, that mystery-shrouded adaptive cruise control system is defined as “an advanced version of cruise control that not only maintains your set speed, but your following distance as well.” That’s followed by a 3-minute instructional video, a three-step guide on using it, an illustrated guide to how it works and what the driver needs to do to use it properly and a FAQ section and resources for further study.