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Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning technologies will be applied to virtually all Honda and Acura models within the next several years, beginning with the all-new 2013 Accord, launching in the fall of 2012.Honda

Yes, the driver nannies work, or at least some of them do. The ultimate goal, or what we might call the final solution to car crashes and road injuries and even fatalities: take human beings out of the driving equation entirely.

What seems clear, based on data collected and analyzed by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) – the research arm of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – is that forward collision avoidance systems work to prevent crashes. Adaptive headlights are worth the money, too.

But lane departure warning? Oddly enough, no. In fact, the insurance claims data suggest lane departure has the opposite effect, that vehicles so equipped are more accident-prone. Perhaps that's because the incessant and often unnecessary "beeping" when drivers cross the white line primarily serves to irritate the heck out of drivers, with the expected consequences – drivers ignore the warnings or become jumpy or erratic in their behaviours.

Matt Moore, vice-president of HLDI, puts it slightly more delicately: "It may be that drivers are getting too many false alarms, which could make them tune out the warnings or turn them off completely. Of course, that doesn't explain why the systems seem to increase claim rates, but we need to gather more data to see if that's truly happening."

More research needs to be done to explain why blind spot detection doesn't seem to reduce crashes, either. Park assist? The evidence says if you want to cut crashes, spend your money elsewhere. Again, the reasons why remain a mystery.

So the big winners among driver nannies: "So far, forward collision technology is reducing claims, particularly for damage to other vehicles, and adaptive headlights are having an even bigger impact than we had anticipated," says Moore.

Naturally, those car companies who have pioneered technology that does not seem to reduce crashes are not thrilled with this latest news.

"We do believe there are safety benefits to the lane departure warning system," Mercedes-Benz USA spokesperson Donna Boland told The Wall Street Journal. Of course. Mercedes and others, adds the Journal, are already heading down the road to systems that not only warn you that you're leaving your lane, but take the wheel and steer you back into line. These car companies have a vested interest in these systems.

The HLDI data put numbers on the bones of what we can all agree is common sense. That is, Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo vehicles with forward collision avoidance systems were involved in 14 per cent fewer damage claims compared to vehicles not so equipped. Obviously, the insurance industry is excited about paying out less in property damage liability (PDLs), but this is also good news for owners who want to avoid the injury and expense of a crash. The recommendation here: look for the forward collision avoidance system with autonomous braking.

This brings us to adaptive headlights. They respond to driver steering inputs, allowing the driver to see around a curve in the dark. Car shoppers might want to look for this safety feature, too. Insurance researchers found that vehicles from Mazda, Volvo, Acura and Mercedes all saw 5-10 per cent decreases in claims losses in vehicles so equipped.

"This is a dramatic result, given that only about seven per cent of police-reported crashes occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and involve more than one vehicle," notes the report from the IIHS.

Sure, the results here tell a good story, but not one quite as compelling as the IIHS itself would like. That is, earlier IIHS research estimated that nearly a third of all crashes could "potentially" be mitigated or even prevented if every vehicle was equipped with all four types of crash avoidance features: forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights. So why isn't current real-world data supporting that rosy forecast?

"That estimate assumes that the systems work exactly as intended and that drivers react correctly to warnings, so it's not surprising that so far the measured benefits from these systems tend to be more modest," says the IIHS report.

The big disappointment in all this is lane departure warning. At one point, IIHS researchers estimated this sort of safety device would prevent or mitigate up to 7,529 fatal crashes in the U.S., if all vehicles had it. Instead, the HLDI study found "that lane departure warning systems from Buick and Mercedes were associated with higher claim rates under both collision and PDL coverages."

As Moore puts it, "Lane departure warning may end up saving lives down the road, but so far these particular versions aren't preventing insurance claims."

Why? The IIHS reports that 43 per cent of Volvo owners and 46 per cent of Infiniti owners reported receiving false or unnecessary lane departure alerts. And 25 per cent of Volvo owners and 41 per cent of Infiniti owners said the lane departure warning system was annoying. In other words, drivers are tuning out warnings for several reasons.

So where does all this leave us? Doctors and the health industry in general have a basic tenet: "First, do no harm." This latest research suggests that in the rush to load up new cars with more safety features, that basic principle of "do no harm" is perhaps being violated. And that should raise flags of concern as car companies and their suppliers work on bringing driverless cars to the roads – cars with onboard computers that manage acceleration, braking and steering place of the driver.

This is no small matter. As Automotive News reports, Continental AG has equipped a Volkswagen Passat sedan with radar sensors, video cameras and onboard computers that enable it to drive itself under a variety of road conditions. The near-term goal at Continental is something called "traffic jam assist." This system when switched on would take the pain out of a stop-and-start commute by turning over the driving to a computer at speeds below 60 km/h. German auto makers Audi, Mercedes and BMW have all expressed interest in offering this technology. Automotive News suggests, in fact, that Traffic Jam Assist may be offered as early as next year.

Even as the research suggests caution about driver nannies, that they might not be as effective as common sense and smart projections would leave us to believe, the race to take the driver out of the safety equation moves forward. Is this relentless and unbridled faith in the power of technology really so justified?

The systems studied

  • Forward collision avoidance: These alert the driver when it is gaining on the traffic ahead, and at a rate likely to end in a collision. Some systems also have the vehicle brake on its own if the driver doesn't respond in time.
  • Adaptive headlights: These headlight systems respond to steering inputs, the idea being to allow the driver to see around a curve in the dark. The headlights' horizontal aim is adjusted based on the speed of the vehicle, direction of the steering wheel and other factors so that the lights are directed where the vehicle is heading.
  • Lane departure warning: When sensors detect a vehicle is drifting from its lane, lane departure warning alerts the driver with an audible signal and perhaps some other indication, such as the shake of the steering wheel.