Safety is a big word in the world of cars. Where once carmakers prioritised speed or plush interiors, now, the health and safety bods have an ever-greater presence in the design, development, production and eventual operation of your next car.
But surely safer cars are a good thing, whatever the cost? In a word, yes – but there are limitations to how far carmakers should go in the pursuit of safety.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been driving a new Ford Focus, and, in a nutshell, it’s great. And, might I add, very safe. It’s got something called ‘Lane-Departure Warning’, whereby the steering wheel vibrates if you stray over the white lines on the motorway without indicating. Then, there’s the ‘Lane Keeping Aid’, which physically nudges you back into your lane when you drift out of line. Basically, it steers itself. Couple this with the ‘Adaptive Cruise Control’, which maintains a constant gap between you and the car ahead, braking and accelerating when required completely independent of the driver, (If he brakes, you brake, he accelerates, you accelerates. That sort of thing…) and you’ve got a car than can practically drive itself.
Cool, you might say. Yes, it most certainly is – there’s something quite novel about being able, in theory, to barrel down the motorway, feet off the pedals, hands off the wheel (I wouldn’t recommend this…) without the fear of crashing.
But this isn’t all. It tells you when there’s something in your blind spot, parallel parks itself at the touch of a button, and in some circumstances, will even bring the car to a complete halt should it think you’re about to hit the bloke in-front.
All of these features have only one aim, to make driving safer. But what they actually do is isolate the driver from the whole experience. Who needs to learn how to do a hill start when the car will hold the brakes for you? Or learn to park when all you need to do is push a button?
Having a plethora of safety tech around you could make you a more dangerous, risk-taking driver, spurred by the soft cushion of safety tech keeping you from ending up upside down in someone’s back garden.
We should treat safety kit as a form of assistance, rather than a get out of jail free card if something goes wrong. If you can’t park, do a hill start, or take evasive action as necessary, without relying on the car then you shouldn’t be driving.
Carmakers need to address the balance between the act of driving and safety kit. The driver should be in control, not the car.