Debbie Abdon was driving home to Milton from the Honda dealer, making what should have been a celebratory trip in her new white Accord, only to feel like she’d bought a haunted vehicle.
The wheel vibrated in her hands. It pulled her to the right. “It scared the daylights out of me,” she said. “She freaked,” her husband said.
Once she was off the highway, Abdon would learn that the wheel’s “possessed” behavior was intended to keep her safe, a feature of Honda’s Lane Keeping Assist System.
But when she was driving on I-95, the now-retired food service worker wasn’t thinking about how even entry-level cars now have “active” safety systems that come close to driving for you. She was thinking about how the big truck to her right was too close for comfort, which made her edge slightly leftward, which in turn prompted the safety system to fight her for control of the car by steering it back to the middle of her lane.
Once home, Abdon promptly disabled the feature. “Whoever is driving should be in control of the car,” she said.
For some large fraction of drivers that’s become a call to action. More than one in five drivers have disabled a safety feature, according to a new study by Liberty Mutual Insurance. The top reasons are good old-fashioned annoyance at all those beeps and flashing lights, and distrust of technology.
Millennials, by the way, disable the systems significantly more than other generations — 35 percent compared to 18 percent of Gen X and 10 percent of baby boomers, the study found. (The study was silent on whether the numbers reflect a youthful disregard for safety, or the boomers’ inability to figure out how to shut off the annoyances.)
If you’re still driving an older car, here’s a glimpse into the new world of automotive nagging: systems that can detect when a car is in your blind spot, or a pedestrian is about to step into your path, and even when another vehicle is about to come across behind you when you’re in reverse. Somehow the car can also figure out when a driver may be too tired, and suggests a break.
Many drivers find lane-departure warnings particularly annoying. The system uses a camera to monitor when the car drifts beyond the lane marking, and sets off an audio, visual, or other alert. Particularly aggressive systems, such as the one in Abdon’s car, not only vibrate, but steer a driver back to the center of the lane.
There is so much to these new safety systems that there’s now a website devoted to them: MyCarDoesWhat.org.
Driver-drowsiness detectors, the site explains, typically work by tracking how often a driver departs from the center of the lane over a set period of time. “More advanced versions can ‘learn’ what your normal driving patterns are when you aren’t drowsy,” the site explains. “If you then begin to drive unusually — such as making many sudden maneuvers or stops — the system may suggest you may be drowsy and should take a driving break.”
In Boston, where we’re blessed to have fellow motorists providing roadway guidance — in the form of a raised middle finger, perhaps, or honking — many drivers don’t want input from their cars, too. And they’re showing up at auto repair shops seeking help, unaware they can turn the offending systems off on their own.
George Jr., a co-owner of Brighton Motor Services, who declined to give his last name, said that not only do people use mechanics as therapists — “You wouldn’t believe half the stuff people tell us about,” he said, “their sexual relationships, they’ve got a family member in jail . . .” — but they also want mechanics to silence their cars.
Customers have asked him to disable blind-spot warning systems. “They buzz people’s butts and they don’t like it,” he said.
But there’s no way he’s assuming that kind of liability. “If I disable it and something happens, everything falls on the shoulders of the small auto repair shop,” he said.
Speaking of therapists, maybe drivers should look within themselves for the problem, and learn, for example, to stay within the highway’s painted lines, and not blame safety features, said Jim Motavalli, a freelance auto writer and the author of “High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry.”
He likened attempts to silence safety-related beeping to the irritation some drivers feel about the “check engine” light. “People are more concerned with getting the light off than addressing the circumstances behind why it came on.”
A proponent of active safety systems, Motavalli understands they can be challenging. “There might be 10 different systems on a single car,” he said. “It can be very difficult to differentiate among warnings.”
The warnings can be so confusing, in fact, that a driver may not even be sure what the car is trying to say. That’s what happened to Eric Mauro, a local stained glass artist, this summer, when he and his wife rented a car in Madrid and thought that thumping sound they kept hearing was the result of driving over what must have been bumps in the road.
Nope. The thumping was the rental’s way of telling Mauro that he was going over a painted lane marker without using his blinker. Considering how hectic the driving already felt — “people drive like maniacs,” he said — he took the time to figure out, in Spanish, how to disable it.
“The other drivers were already clear on what I was doing wrong,” he said.
Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute have found that many safety features reduce crashes. Cars with lane-departure warning systems had 11 percent fewer single-vehicle, sideswipe, and head-on crashes than those without the technology, for example. Blind-spot detection systems led to a 23 percent decrease in lane changes with injuries.
The technology isn’t foolproof, of course, as per this recent press release: “AAA Warns Pedestrian Detection Systems Don’t Work When Needed Most.”
Meanwhile, safety is one issue. Art is another. One shudders to think what this all means for Hollywood.
Imagine that famous scene in “On the Waterfront” in a modern vehicle: Marlon Brando playing the washed-up boxer Terry, confronting his brother in the back of a cab outfitted with today’s safety features.
“You shoulda looked out for me a little bit,” he would tell Charley, as Leonard Bernstein’s dirge-like score plays in the background. As Brando winds up for his big line, the cab driver makes the mistake of drifting out of his lane. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a’’ — beep, beep, beep.