Safe driving technology can only help if you know how to use it

On The Road

Learning to Use Safe Driving Technology

Safety matches may be safer than regular matches, but if you don’t know how to use them properly, you could get your fingers burned. Safe driving systems (SDS) are no different.

Safe Driving Technology Can Only Help if You Know How to Use It

SDS are not just found in luxury vehicles. If they are not in the car you normally drive, they may be in rental cars. You can’t avoid them, nor should you, because they make driving safer. But you can’t simply slip behind the wheel, turn on the ignition and expect them to protect you. All drivers need to learn how to use them – even driving instructors.

Angelo DiCicco is the general manager of Young Drivers of Canada and the director of operations for the Advanced Driving Centre where they design courses to help bridge the gap between new vehicle technology and today’s drivers. He has been teaching people of all ages how to drive for over 30 years. 
A few years ago, DiCicco tested his first car equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC).

The benefits of Adaptive Cruise Control

ACC automatically adjusts a vehicle’s speed to keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. A laser in the vehicle monitors the speed of the vehicle it is following. In vehicles with ACC, when the vehicle ahead speeds up, the device tells your vehicle to speed up as well, while still keeping a safe following distance between the two. Likewise, if the vehicle ahead slows down, ACC makes your vehicle slow down.

“Classroom training is a good start but in-car training is imperative if you want drivers to master the technology of safe driving devices.”

Since it automatically adjusts a vehicle’s speed to keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead, and intervenes when necessary to apply the brakes should it anticipate a rear-end collision, ACC can help reduce driver fatigue.

It also helps drivers who have a habit of speeding on highways to stay within the legal limit. As our daily commutes get longer and our roads get busier, ACC can help drivers get to their destination safely by providing them with a safe following distance.

“It helps drivers go with the flow of traffic without having to monitor it constantly,” DiCicco says.

The homebrewed ACC test

But DiCicco says the device has its limitations.

Don’t turn to your owner’s manual for help on what they are, though. “I checked the owner’s manual. It didn’t say much except to suggest I use it on flat highway driving and in good weather conditions,” DiCicco recalls.

So he decided to find out what the system could and couldn’t do and when it should and shouldn’t be used. DiCicco’s ACC offered three choices: one, two or three seconds of following distance. He selected the maximum safe following distance available of three seconds at 100 km/hr. Three seconds is the minimum recommended stopping time under ideal conditions at highway speeds.

This means that if the vehicle ahead is travelling at 100 km/hr and it comes to a stop, the ACC automatically would bring the vehicle to a complete stop in three seconds.

ACC not for use on off ramps

DiCicco recalls that all worked well until he tested it on an off ramp. He came away with these concerns:

Yes, the vehicle slowed in tandem with the vehicle ahead as it approached the ramp.

But he wondered what would happen if the driver of the vehicle ahead did not slow down enough or the ACC loses sight of the vehicle ahead on a curve and speeds up because it does not sense that there is any car ahead.

“The technology doesn’t know it’s on a curve and it doesn’t appreciate that it’s dumb to go 100 km/hr on a tight curve.”

He urges drivers to turn off ACC when using on- and off-ramps. He also urges caution on winding roads because ACC is programmed to drive as if all roads were curve-free.

ACC your fair-weather friend

ACC is not much good on slippery roads and when visibility is poor, either. In fact, ACC has been programmed for use under ideal conditions. Heavy snow, slush, road salt can also affect the sensor’s ability to function. Your vehicle stability control will step in to correct this should anything go awry. Still, DiCicco cautions, it’s best to simply turn the ACC off at the first sign of bad weather to avoid skidding.

DiCicco warns that if you think your ACC will drive your car for you while you busy yourself with other matters, you should think again. His homebrewed test shows ACC still requires driver to be alert and attentive. Nevertheless, you should not rely on ACC to be in charge. Your attention and judgement are needed on the roadways at all times.

Busy street scene with pedestrians and man with bicycle

Other examples of SDS include:

  • Electronic stability control (ESC). ESC detects when the vehicle skids and automatically applies the brakes to the wheels that need it to regain stability. Some ESC systems reduce engine power until the system helps the driver regain control. For example, ESC helps get you out of danger when you realize you didn’t slow down enough on a slippery off-ramp.
  • Lane keeping warning and lane keeping assist (LKW and LKA). When the car wanders outside of a marked lane, LKW warns the driver with a loud beep or vibrates the steering wheel. LKA steers the car back into the lane.
  • Pedestrian sensing devices (PSD). PSD warns the driver when a pedestrian enters a fixed zone around the vehicle. Should that happen, it stops the vehicle. Ever take your foot off the brake as the bus ahead pulls away and a pedestrian darts in between you and the bus? PSD spots the jaywalker and applies the brakes.

DiCicco points out that SDS vary from automaker to automaker and each has its limitations. For example, blind spot monitoring may not detect a cyclist who comes “rocketing up on an awkward angle when you’re making a right turn on a red light.”

Learning new safety systems can be challenging

DiCicco says problems transitioning to new safety systems aren’t unusual.

When a leading utility company introduced anti-lock braking (ABS) to its fleet, the company’s drivers found driving the ABS-equipped vehicles from highway to gravel shoulders often led to rollovers when the drivers eased off the brake. Called in to diagnose what was wrong, DiCicco found that easing off was the wrong tactic with ABS. He prescribed pushing hard on the brake for traction on gravel and the rollovers ceased.

DiCicco says that SDS has the potential to change the way people drive for the better. The public is increasingly aware of their value, but they are not being trained to use them properly, he says. For many, reading the owner’s manual won’t do it. At present, there are no legal requirements for driver-training courses for people who use SDS-equipped vehicles but have never used SDS functions before.

DiCicco warns that if you think your ACC will drive your car for you while you busy yourself with other matters, you should think again… Your attention and judgement are needed on the roadways at all times.

Time to brush up on your driving skills

DiCicco says the public realizes there is a need for training.

“We are getting more and more requests from children who fear that their parents don’t understand how the SDS in their cars work. Or from people who were in a crash that could have been avoided if they had known how to use the SDS their car came with.”

DiCicco says parents want their teens trained to use them, and most veteran drivers even admit that they don’t know how to use the safety systems in their own cars.

The current problem is that there is a shortage of good SDS training courses.

“Classroom training is a good start but in-car training is imperative if you want drivers to master the technology of safe driving devices.” SDS are technology’s way of saying, “it’s time to go back to driving school to brush up on your driving skills.”

Drivers should visit the websites of driving schools in their neighbourhood to see which schools feature SDS training. If they don’t see anything, follow up with a phone call or email query. Parents searching for driver training for their teen – or children searching for SDS training for their parents – should do the same. Driving schools will soon get the message.

Remember, the journey to safer driving with SDS can start with one call or email.