Fast Talk with Jeff Smith: The Price of Technology

I’ll admit that my ’64 El Camino isn’t nearly as safe as a 2017 pickup. It doesn’t have a shoulder harness, and its steering column doesn’t collapse and nor is it fitted with an air bag. But I guarantee you that I’m safer in my old car because I know how to drive compared to a millennial who is texting while driving a brand new car.

I’ll admit that my ’64 El Camino isn’t nearly as safe as a 2017 pickup. It doesn’t have a shoulder harness, and its steering column doesn’t collapse and nor is it fitted with an air bag. But I guarantee you that I’m safer in my old car because I know how to drive compared to a millennial who is texting while driving a brand new car.

In the past I’ve mentioned the driving education I’ve earned from several schools but especially from the Bondurant School. My first school goes back to 1986 when Bondurant was at Sears Point and using Ford Mustangs and Formula Fords. Those were great times.

One of the best parts of the school that related directly to driving on the street was a three-lane accident avoidance maneuver course. The situation involved driving a Mustang down a single lane that opened into an intersection where you faced three opposite separate lanes – one straight ahead with a lane on either side. Each of these entries were marked with a set of cones roughly three to four car lengths from the entry.

Each of the lanes was controlled by a traffic light positioned above each lane. The idea was to enter the intersection driving at roughly 40 mph. Just before you entered the open area, all three sets of lights had a green light – meaning you could enter any of the three. But as soon as you entered the intersection, two of the lights would turn red and you had to perform several actions simultaneously.

The first was to begin braking, but you also had to react to the lane that was still green and steer into that lane while maintaining control. This was not difficult at 40 mph but did require you to have quick reflexes. Most of the time, you had to turn either left or right as the center lane was usually red.

Once our class of about 15 students had hit each session a few times, the instructor changed the rules and he might make all three lanes red. This was done for several reasons. Some of the students quickly figured out that you didn’t have to hit the brakes to make the lane change. But if your foot wasn’t covering the brake pedal (I’m a left-foot braker so that gave me an advantage) you would not have enough time to get stopped before entering the line of cones that marked the beginning of each lane.

After none of us could get stopped before the line of cones, the instructor asked us what we learned. One of the students claimed “You can’t get stopped in that short a distance,” which was exactly what the instructor was anticipating. He handed me the controller and offered to drive into the test area at 5 mph faster than the speed we had been told to use.

As you can imagine, the instructor was more than able to stop with plenty of distance before the line of cones and we were all suitably impressed. But that wasn’t the point of the exercise.

The real point was to show us that it’s easier to avoid a dead-stopped car directly in front of you by using a combination of braking and maneuvering rather than using just the brakes to try to get completely stopped. All of us were able to steer and brake to make a quick lane change while none of us could get the car stopped in that same distance. His point was extremely well made.

With all this as background, I’m watching television the other night and a commercial for a KIA shows a driver portrayed as not paying attention to his driving. The scenario shows a car directly in front of the KIA car that comes immediately to a stop. Our clueless driver is unaware he’s about to hit the car immediately ahead when magically the KIA collision avoidance system applies maximum braking (remember it has ABS) and brings our now startled driver to a complete and safe stop some 10 feet before hitting the car directly ahead of him.

I immediately started yelling at the television! There is so much that is wrong with that commercial that I’m appalled that KIA would allow it to be shown in public. First of all, to me the commercial’s implication is that it’s perfectly acceptable to drive distracted because the car’s automatic braking system will save you. That’s just wrong.

First of all, what happens when you’re driving much faster than this situation or following too closely or the car immediately in front of you dives off to the right or left and leaves you no room to stop even with ABS? I know that this automatic braking system is better than nothing but it should never take the place of good driving technique.

Unfortunately, I think this technology is merely enabling a new generation of drivers to think “Hey, I don’t have to really pay attention here – the car will brake for me – so I have more time to play with my phone while I’m driving!” While that sounds childish and overly simplistic, I know there are people out there who drive to work in the morning while reading a book or the newspaper. I know this because I’ve seen them. They are morons. Statistically, I have a pretty good chance they won’t hit me – but it is still unnerving.

Using the Bondurant driving simulator test example, it would be far better for the driver who is paying attention to merely move into an adjacent lane to avoid hitting the stopped car in front. Granted, those adjoining lanes may be occupied. But at 60 mph – which would you rather do: Smash into the car directly ahead at 40+ mph or slide into the adjacent lane and perhaps bend a fender of the car next to you? I know which choice I will make. And it certainly won’t be behind the wheel of a KIA.

About Jeff Smith

A clue into how long Jeff Smith has been writing technical automotive stories might be his following of second generation readers. Writing continuously for nearly 40 years, his focus with Xceleration covers all things technical. His collection of cars includes a bevy of Chevelles and El Caminos. When not writing about cars, he likes to spend time with his wife Valerye, children Amber and Graham, and granddaughter Celeste.