Our quest for safety is killing our awareness of it

Our quest for safety is killing our awareness of it


When it comes to driving, personal safety is increasingly being left to the responsibility of the car rather than the driver, while an increasing amount of the driver’s attention is focused on things other than the road. We are turning into people who can’t chew our own food or wipe our own bottoms. Why bother, when there are machines for that? In some ways, on the roads, our quest for safety is killing our awareness of it.

Here is my theory, in a nutshell.

The more present or significant the apparent danger and the higher the rate of apparent risk, the more consideration people will give to their actions, and the more care people will take when performing them. Conversely, the more mitigating factors that are present in a given situation, the less concerned people are of their actions.

For example, a pedestrian crossing an unobstructed street (not at a crossing) with low traffic volumes and a speed limit of 40kph, will cross with little trouble or concern for their safety. Minimum thought is devoted to such an action. A pedestrian crossing a multi-lane, busy street with a speed limit of 80kph will do so with considerably more consideration, or may simply choose to find a signalled crossing at which to cross, having considered all the options. The main thing here is that there is nothing a pedestrian can physically do to protect themselves in the incident of a collision with a vehicle, so the only way to make themselves safer is to take more responsibility for their own safety and avoiding the danger in the first place.

A cyclist is mostly in the same position as a pedestrian, with some differences. A pedestrian has a separated system in which to operate (sidewalk/pavement), whereas a cyclist is usually placed within the same confines as automobiles. Here, the danger is greater than on the sidewalk, with some exceptions. In the cyclists favour, their speeds are higher and they can cover ground more quickly, therefore making it slightly easier to integrate themselves into moving traffic, however, the increase in speed obviously increases the consequences of any mistake made by anyone. I hardly need to make mention of the many dangers cyclists face that pedestrians do not, except for this: if a pedestrian keeps within their designated space – the sidewalk – they remain free from danger, with notable exceptions. It is when they have to enter the space where faster traffic is located that the danger increases quite alarmingly. A cyclist, on the other hand, spends most of their time on roads with traffic. Where painted cycle lanes are provided, there is still nothing the cyclist can do to avoid being collected by a passing motorist, an opening door, or by someone else attempting to enter the same space. Aside from being as visible as possible and acting predictably, there is nothing a cyclist can do to increase their own safety in these scenarios while on the road.

Given this – that cyclists have no more personal protection than a pedestrian (aside from helmets, which do help and at the very least are better than nothing, whatever your opinion on that is) but must operate in traffic and therefore face a greater variety of dangers – it seems to me that cyclists are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to their personal safety. Add to this a significant increase in speed, and you have a situation with a rather large potential for risk and danger. As much (or little) protection as a pedestrian, but placed within automobile traffic. Looking at it that way, it sounds kind of crazy.

Now consider the modern-day automobile. Seatbelts, all by their lonesome, make a huge impact on the drivers safety. Add increasingly better crumple zones, airbags in every conceivable space, better brakes, better head-restraints, predictive/emergency brake assist, lane departure warning systems, blind-spot warning devices, and a giant, metal cage around the driver makes for a pretty safe place to be. With each device, the driver and occupants are made safer, and the reality of danger is ever more distant – making it less of a concern.

Getting straight to the point (maybe it’s a little late for that), if all this cotton wool insulates drivers of motor vehicles from the inherent risks they encounter and generate, you might be able to argue that while they protect the driver and occupants, they give them a false sense of security, or more importantly, a false sense of how safe they are in relation to others.

The safer the confines of the driver, the safer they feel, the more risky or careless their behaviour.

The less likely you are to be hurt, the more risks you might be willing to take, perhaps egged on by a false sense of security. I’m not saying that airbags cause drivers to try to make a gap that they wouldn’t attempt without them. I am suggesting that blind-spot indicators might make drivers less diligent with checking their blind-spots; that lane-departure warning systems might make a driver less aware of their position on the road or allow them to think that they can stare at their phones more readily; that rear-vision cameras and parking sensors are eroding people’s ability to park with skill; that brake-assist systems may have the potential for drivers to develop poorer reaction times in emergencies or plan for them less.

Basically, I am arguing that automation may be causing us to become lazy, or more correctly, more lazy than we already are. I am arguing that alongside this potential for increasing levels of driver laziness, our quest for safety may even be killing our awareness of it, and that doesn’t sound like a good combination.

A cyclist behaves in a way that ensures their own personal safety, for the most part. We have to. If we get hit, we get hurt, or killed. We have all seen people who ride a bike with no apparent consideration of their own safety, which usually compromises that of others, but I’m not going to count these people, because they are stupid. They don’t need technology to make them any more stupid – they are stupid enough all by themselves.

In the same way, a pedestrian behaves in a way that ensures their own personal safety, for the most part. We have to (though of course, the exploding population of phone-zombies is not to be ignored…). If we get hit, we get hurt, or killed.

A motorist? If a motorist hits a pedestrian, there is no way they are going to be killed, and they usually aren’t even a tiny bit hurt. If a motorist hits a cyclist, there is really no way that they are going to be killed, and usually they aren’t even a tiny bit hurt. If a motorist hits another vehicle or similarly sized object, they could be killed, like they are by the thousands every month, but the “it will never happen to me” phenomenon is reinforced by all the technology that is designed to keep them safe, and it’s not something that is constantly on the motorists mind while they drive. Otherwise we would have very, very different behaviour on our roads.

Put another way, motorists have very little personal inspiration to be vigilant around more vulnerable road-users. They’ll never be killed, almost never be hurt, insurance will usually cover the bulk of the material loss (minus the deductible), and the law provides absolutely no real penalty for bad judgement and poor decisions, even when they result in the death of another.

Here is a situation I like to imagine now and then: all of a sudden, vehicles have no electronic intervention systems, no airbags, no seatbelts, no insurance payout if you are deemed to be at fault and the action was at all preventable, and where serious injury or the death of another resulted in a serious penalty, like actual jail time and a lifetime driving ban.

How fast would accident and death rates drop?

Pretty quickly, I’d guess.

Coming back to reality, obviously anything that increases safety is a good thing. I’m not seriously advocating that we get rid of seatbelts, etc, but I am concerned about things that increase people’s ability to be negligent, lazy, and less skilled than they otherwise would be. In a paper that looks at the role of the human in situations where automation failed, Lackmand and Söderlund suggest that “to avoid degradation in human abilities to safely intervene, changes in automation levels should always be preceded by an analysis of its long-term effect on the human operators’ skills and capabilities.” Driving is dangerous. We need to ensure that we are not eroding the ability of drivers to be self-sufficient and self-aware enough that they drive with due consideration.

A review of Nicholas Carr‘s book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, notes how “quickly and uncritically we have outsourced the daily experience of being human to algorithms and machines, and how crucial it is to stop and reflect on what we are doing to ourselves.”

Maybe our quest for safety is killing our awareness of it.


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