One step forward, two steps back?

As electronic driver aids get more advanced, new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and MIT’s AgeLab shows that drivers are more likely to engage with distractions; the thought process being something along the lines of “If my car will steer and stop itself, why should I worry about keeping my eyes on the road?”

The research team studied the driving habits of 20 Massachusetts-based volunteers over a month as they got the hang of driver assists. They noted how often subjects took both hands off the wheel or diverted their attention away from driving to use a cell phone or fiddle with interior items.

Having split the research group into two sets of ten, half of them drove a Land Rover Range Rover Sport with adaptive cruise control (ACC) while the others took to a Volvo S90 with both ACC and Pilot assist, a facility that keeps you in your travel lane.

While things remained normal early-on in the test, after a month, subjects got sloppy and were substantially more likely to divert their focus elsewhere. “Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot assist compared with the beginning of the study,” said IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan – the lead author of the study.

It’s important to note that these safety-net type features are not designed to replace the driver. Public roads are a very unpredictable place, meaning that the driver must be alert at all times. The experiment produced interesting results here, but we’d be remiss not to mention that these are very isolated scenarios; another study with more test subjects for a longer period of time certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

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