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These safety systems are making your car less safe! Or are they? | Opinion

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Annoyingly, these invasive safety systems work, at least on paper.
Annoyingly, these invasive safety systems work, at least on paper.

I've been driving a few cars lately which make me wonder if the latest batch of active safety items, designed to tick a box on a spec sheet, actually make a car 'safer'. In fact, I think some systems are doing the opposite.

The number one offender on my list is the Haval Jolion. This little SUV from China is actually surprisingly good. In fact, in a lot of ways it's a great value alternative to now-expensive Korean and Japanese small SUVs, if only it weren't for its driver monitoring so-called 'safety' tech.

A hundred thousand little pieces come together to make this car, and this one thing could be a dealbreaker.

Consisting of a camera mounted on the A-Pillar, ominously pointed directly at your face, paired to software which chastises you for seemingly even thinking about looking away from the road, it feels like this system is entirely counter-intuitive.

If it thinks you're looking away from the road, it sounds a chime, which sounds for a long time, and requires you to jab at a tiny confirmation box on its high-resolution centre touchscreen, looking away from the road in the process, to acknowledge that you were indeed looking away from the road, and that no, you won't do it again.

The Jolion isn't the only offender for driver monitoring tech, which doesn't seem to be a technology flawed based on price. I found the new Lexus RX, which has a similar system consisting of a camera perched atop the steering rack, also quite annoying (but not quite as potentially dangerous as the Haval's system) when it decided you weren't looking at the road.

By now there’s a good chance you’ve had a run-in with lane-keep assist, which it seems can go one of two ways.
By now there’s a good chance you’ve had a run-in with lane-keep assist, which it seems can go one of two ways.

I say decided because these systems are quite easy to confuse. Sunglasses can be enough to make them either constantly think you're distracted or simply not work at all, while a hat was enough to confuse the Jolion.

You can turn off this technology, but it's buried two sub-menus deep in the case of the Jolion, and needs to be switched off every single time you start the ignition.

The trouble is, I'm wrong, and the data says the technology works. A broad study published in ScienceDirect, which included driver attention alert and other features over 22 months and 373 light vehicles in Ireland showed that half of drivers surveyed in the study had 'improved their attitude' toward hazardous conditions, with driver inattention ranking as the second-best improvement - with at least a 50 per cent reduction in triggered alerts in just six months.

In other words - driver attention monitoring alerts bullied drivers into being better.

The Jolion isn’t the only offender for driver monitoring tech, which doesn’t seem to be a technology flawed based on price.
The Jolion isn’t the only offender for driver monitoring tech, which doesn’t seem to be a technology flawed based on price.

Driver monitoring tech is also not the only frustrating and potentially deal-braking safety system out there. By now there's a good chance you've had a run-in with lane-keep assist, which it seems can go one of two ways - it's either a light-handed system which gently reminds or nudges you back into the lane, or a heavy-handed system which thinks it can steer much better than you at all times.

Take the recent Chery Omoda 5. You would think, after years of dormancy in Australia, Chery would put its best foot forward with this small SUV, and yet when it arrived it had an infuriating lane-keep assist system, which Richard Berry described as "aggressive" and "unnecessary" remarking that he "felt safer with all lane-keep systems turned off" in his review.

Again, an own-goal, and one not limited to new Chinese cars. Kia recently infamously had to provide an instruction manual to journalists who tested the new Seltos at launch, so heavy-handed is its lane-keep assist technology.

While many of these lane-keep systems are frustrating, or seemingly even counter-intuitive, their introduction has had a major effect on crash safety, according to a Monash University study.

 Sunglasses can be enough to make them either constantly think you’re distracted or simply not work at all, while a hat was enough to confuse the Jolion.
Sunglasses can be enough to make them either constantly think you’re distracted or simply not work at all, while a hat was enough to confuse the Jolion.

The study showed that the systems prevented some 22 per cent of fatal or serious injury crashes in high-speed zones, where unintentional lane departures account for 42 per cent of fatal crashes and 55 per cent of fatalities. So again, while there aren't specific data points broken down per manufacturer, I'm wrong, and the technology, broadly, works as intended.

Lastly, there's auto emergency braking (AEB). By far one of the most revolutionary safety systems to arrive on cars in the last decade, auto emergency braking is one we all love. This is mostly because it has caused a complete nose-dive in low-speed collisions, with the car compensating for some driver's momentary lapses of concentration, but that doesn't mean it's perfect.

In my own experience, just in the last year, I've had a Hyundai Kona do a full AEB stop in stop-start traffic for seemingly no reason, and a Mercedes-Benz E-Class do the same on an empty street in the middle of the night. Annoying in these isolated low-speed and low-risk circumstances, but potentially dangerous in traffic if the driver behind you is driving an older car. Even if they're paying attention, there's a good chance they won't be able to hop on the brake as fast as the computer in your fancy AEB-equipped car can.

The good news is, for AEB at least, the technology has proven to be overwhelmingly effective at reducing collisions altogether, particularly low-speed ones. A report by Transport NSW revealed that almost one third of all light vehicle crashes occurring in Australia and New Zealand between 2013 and 2017 could have been avoided or mitigated by AEB systems, with overseas data suggesting the number of rear-end collisions prevented could be as high as 50 per cent.

Take the recent Chery Omoda 5. You would think, after years of dormancy in Australia, Chery would put its best foot forward with this small SUV.
Take the recent Chery Omoda 5. You would think, after years of dormancy in Australia, Chery would put its best foot forward with this small SUV.

As of March 1, 2023, it became mandatory for every brand-new vehicle sold in Australia to come equipped with auto emergency braking, thanks to a new Australian Design Rule (88/00). The incoming Mahindra Scorpio will be the last new vehicle to launch without the technology, as it was compiled late last year before the cut-off date.

For every new vehicle sold in Australia (including cars compiled before the cut-off date), AEB will become mandatory by March 1, 2025.

The verdict then? While I drive a lot of cars and am exposed to a breadth of safety systems which at times seem counterintuitive, the data proves me wrong. Even if the system is downright annoying, studies overwhelmingly suggest all of these technologies work to improve driving over time. While I still think there's an argument to be made for comparing how distracting systems can be between brands, the data says it's worth ticking that box.

Tom White
Senior Journalist
Despite studying ancient history and law at university, it makes sense Tom ended up writing about cars, as he spent the majority of his waking hours finding ways to drive as many as possible. His fascination with automobiles was also accompanied by an affinity for technology growing up, and he is just as comfortable tinkering with gadgets as he is behind the wheel. His time at CarsGuide has given him a nose for industry news and developments at the forefront of car technology.
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