XC90 presents… the paradox of safety

As cars and cities evolve, technology is making our roads safer than ever. But do we actually feel safer? Robert Thomson, professor of vehicle safety at Gothenburg’s Chalmers University, and Eva Lahti, director of driver assistance at Volvo Cars, discuss the paradox of safety.

INTERVIEWS: IAN DICKSON | PHOTOS: JOHAN WEDENSTRÖM

Are we getting safer as a society?
Robert Thomson: “We’re definitely getting safer. The number of fatal road accidents is going down, and the number of injuries on the whole are going down. But there are so many new, unfamiliar technologies around us, and there’s a difference between perceived safety and real safety. What we’re seeing now are more of the smaller, lighter crashes. And – in cities in particular – there’s a shift to more serious injuries because of more cyclists and pedestrians interacting with vehicles in tighter spaces. People are living longer now, too, and older people are more fragile and susceptible to injury in a crash.”

How are cars evolving to deal with these new types of crashes?
Eva Lahti: “Traditionally, safety was about minimising the damage once an accident occurred. Now we’re finding ways to not even get into those dangerous situations. This is risk management or precautionary safety, but in a way that’s not invasive. Now, every Volvo you buy has City Safety. You get automatic emergency braking and steering avoidance that helps you avoid collisions with other vehicles as well as cyclists, pedestrians and even large animals.”

Is it a balance between technology and driver behaviour?
Robert Thomson: “I don’t think we think socially when we’re in the car. When I interview people that have been involved in an accident, they always say ‘I’m a safe driver’. It’s always the other person that’s the problem. We have to show that if you behave properly and other people behave properly then everyone benefits. You don’t own the road, you have to share it and to share it you have to be aware of what’s around you.”

How can you monitor driver behaviour?
Eva Lahti: “In the future we will introduce cameras and driver monitoring that will not only look at the steering input, but also the driver’s eyes and posture to recognise if the driver is drowsy or perhaps under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And if the system detects that the driver shouldn’t actually be driving the car, it will warn them. This is just monitoring the driver here and now – we will not record the information or send it anywhere. The important thing to remember is that this is not surveillance of the driver.”

How much of an issue is driver distraction?
Eva Lahti: “At Volvo Cars, we say that you as a driver are always responsible for driving your car and that should be your main focus. You shouldn’t look away. But we know it doesn’t always work like that. People make short glances to the driver display, to the centre display, to the rear-view mirror. And glances are OK so long as your main focus is on the road. The problem is that with more and more assistance in cars these days, it’s easy to over-trust the car. You might be thinking, ‘the car is steering itself, so I can check emails or change the destination on the map’, but it is actually never OK to do that – even though you’re driving in assisted mode and the car is helping you to steer and keep a safe distance to the car in front. There is a lot of discussion about automated cars and automated drive but, to be clear, there are no automated cars today.”

Robert Thomson: “When you’re driving, you’re looking at the road for only 85% of the time. So what are you doing with the other 15%? We have to figure out how we get this human, who is easily bored and distracted, to arrive at their destination safely. What I notice, and we see it in our research too, is that people play with their cell phones – especially on the highway – they talk with the people beside them, they eat and drink. It’s these secondary tasks which can be dangerous.”

What are the societal benefits of fewer collisions?
Robert Thomson: “The thing we always forget is that our behaviour affects that person over there. We don’t know their name, we’ll never meet them again, but if we make the wrong choice there’s this whole sphere of influence around us. If you have an accident you might not have hurt anyone severely but you’ve disturbed the traffic around it and that has an impact on society. The bus that slowed down for an accident, for example, meant that people were late for work and a doctor couldn’t get to his operating room, so the spin-off of one little crash can have huge societal consequences.”