By on December 6, 2007

donnorman.jpgDon Norman thinks cars are too safe. In an interview with BusinessWeek re: his new book, The Future Design of Things, the design guru says he's changed his view of technology. Previously, Norman said machines should adapt to their users. Now he says humans are much more adaptable than machines, so human should take the time to learn to use a machine properly– instead of blaming the machine when it doesn't work as expected. iDriving home the point, he zeroed-in on all the technology aimed at making cars safer: "…a problem with automation in cars is that we can forget that driving is dangerous. How can we ask car drivers to be alert when it seems like not much is happening when they're in an automated car?" Normal wants automakers to provide "natural feedback" of hazards in the environment– instead of isolating the driver from them. For example, when it's raining, the sound system should amplify the noise instead of muffling it, alerting the driver to be more alert. He's also of the opinion that technology needs to be simpler to use and more intuitive, obviating the need for a thick user manual to figure it out. Which contradicts his first point, which, in Norman's circles, is called an enigma. 

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20 Comments on “Safety Technology Makes Cars Unsafe...”

  • avatar

    He’s got a point. How many young whipper snappers can’t drive a rear wheel non-ABS car in the rain. Or better yet, how many overtorque and oversteer their ABS-enabled, rollover-resistant, 20xty-six airbagged, 350HP V6 wrong-wheeled drive top-heavy SUV because they don’t realize how dangerous their driving techniques are after years of automotive nanny minders silently correcting their driving mistakes.

    Everyone should learn to drive in snowy ice with a 1981 Chevy Caprice or equivalent. It would make better drivers out of 80% of the yahoo’s on the road.

  • avatar

    Well, there aren’t that many rear wheeled vehicles out there anymore, so I fail to see how this will help.

    A driver piloting an old boat can be just as inattentive as one driving with lane departure alerts, and other accident-avoidance technology. Over-reliance of such technologies only highlights a long-standing problem: We’re failing to adequately teach proper defensive driving techniques.

  • avatar

    Light snow in the DC suburbs yesterday, which means EVERYONE PANIC!
    SUV pirouetting in front of the wife yesterday while trying to pass her? Check.

    Usually unobtrusive, it was interesting to feel the ESC cycle between the Sienna’s two front wheels trying to get to the top of my driveway which I had just plowed and salted 2 hours prior. Toyota’s ESC doesn’t start beeping unless you’re slipping badly, which of course happens quite regularly when trying to exit our subdivision.

    My first driver 17 years ago was a RWD non-ABS sedan; now with all the distractions driving the 3 little ones I need all the e-nanny help I can get.

    Humans more adaptable than machines? Uh, not the humans I know…

  • avatar

    The biggest problem with safety equipment is that is encourages people to take more risks, knowing that they have that ABS, ESC, or air bag to save their bacon. This is why insurance companies stopped giving discounts for ABS years ago, since they demonstrated no real safety benefit.

    That said, I would still rather have the safety gear than not, what with all the risk takers out on the road.

  • avatar

    Everyone should learn to drive in snowy ice with a 1981 Chevy Caprice or equivalent. It would make better drivers out of 80% of the yahoo’s on the road.
    I’ll second that. I learned to drive in the snow in a ’78 Chevy Malibu wagon myself. You learn pretty quickly just how slow you have to go if you don’t want your back end swinging all over the place.

  • avatar

    How many people take their car to an empty parking lot the first snow-fall each year? How many people actually know how to properly brake with an ABS car? I think the electronic nanny’s are good for attentive drivers that understand how a handles. What frightens me is people eating/reading the paper/putting on makeup on the highway in a 6000lb truck that they never have used in a hairy situation before. So all in all I agree with Don Norman, but I also think it’s a problem with common sense and drivers education.

  • avatar

    Forget the big V8 non-ABS sedans. Put those noobs in Chevettes. If you can make it through a sloppy winter without getting yourself killed in one of those you can handle anything else on the road.

  • avatar

    Just like racing.
    In the old days, when race cars were quite unsafe, there weren’t that many wrecks, although often any wreck resulted in injury or death.
    Now with essentially injury proof cars and equipment, wreckage seems to happen every 10 laps.

  • avatar

    You guys are stealing my thunder. I wrote a whole article about the downsides of automotive electronics and Moral Hazard (doing dumb things because something might bail you out) was one of the main themes.

  • avatar

    I’m all for lane-departure warnings if they’ll train people to signal.

  • avatar

    A safety first attitude and attention matter much more than any safety equipment, and even skill.

  • avatar

    Airbags should be banned and required to be replaced with a 9″ steel spike aimed right at the driver’s chest. Think that might change behavior?

  • avatar

    radimus :
    December 6th, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Forget the big V8 non-ABS sedans. Put those noobs in Chevettes. If you can make it through a sloppy winter without getting yourself killed in one of those you can handle anything else on the road.

    My teenage experience with a Chevette was quite different, with my dad being smart enough to put studded winter tires on it!

    I’m not looking forward to the day when I can no longer buy a new car without any nannies. I’ve never had a situation where I wanted to allow my car to change the way I want to drive it. I felt like putting my fist through the dash when the rental Highlander I drove decided it knew more about driving in snow than I. The traction control (or stability control, or whatever) button doesn’t actually do anything in that vehicle. On is on, and off is on.

  • avatar
    bill h.


    My dad had a Chevette in the early 80s, in Buffalo of all places. He got around fine, as did I (even during snowstorms!) when I had to borrow the thing while staying with them at holidays. I’m pretty sure he had winter tires too. Plus the manual shifter helped a lot. And it didn’t hurt that the roadcrews in Upstate NY did a great job.

  • avatar

    The term for this effect is risk homeostasis and it is a well studied effect. People naturally tend to assume a certain level of risk according to their personal risk tolerance. As the perceived risks decrease (airbags, ABS, ESC) they tend to alter their behaviour (increase speed, shorten following distance, etc.) so that the overall risk, as perceived by them, is relatively constant.

    So the headline is not quite correct. Safety technology doesn’t make cars unsafe, it makes the drivers unsafe.

    The steel spike in the steering column would no doubt affect driver behaviour, although for the sake of emergency responders I wouldn’t advocate it.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive on a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria LTD. I took my road test on 1991 Geo Metro, and I learned to drive Stick on a 1988 Mustang 2.3 liter, 5 speed.
    For various reasons, each of those vehicles were very unsafe–and cannot compare to my 2004 Nissan Sentra 1.8 S. However, if you can drive the Crown Vic, Mustang, or Metro safely, with failing mechanicals, in poor weather without crashing, then you can drive anything. I am 28, and prefer Japanese front wheel drive sedans. My little cousin and my little sister went straight to driving a Civic Si, and an Elantra. Both came with a sunroof, nice wheels, and airbags. Niether vehicle required the driver to “make there bones” on the road, which means that they don’t drive as well or as safe as my older brother and I who started out driving 10 year old American Junk that is falling apart. In my first few cars, if you went too fast, or didn’t leave enough room to brake in wet weather, then you crashed. Thats if the Detroit POS started and went into gear in the first place.

    By the way, people like to beat-up the Nissan Sentra (2000-2006) and the new model. They are very good cars, and a very good value for the price. I would take one over the Cobalt, Focus, Dodge, and Kia. I would rate it equally to the Corrolla and Elantra. And slightly below the Mazda 3(which still uses a timing belt and not a timing chain) and of course the 1st in class Honda Civic.(which is priced too high, and the dealers won’t negotiate very much.)

  • avatar

    Here we go again. Another article that generates the following response template:

    Cars have too many electronic nannies. When I was [insert age] in the [70s|80s] I drove a [name of old unsafe car] and I didn’t have [ABS|ESP|disc brakes] and I learned [to drive properly|not crash]. Cars today [have no soul|have too many gadgets|are not built like they used to].

    I propose taking it one step further: anyone who drives an automatic car simply isn’t a safe driver. They can fall asleep at the wheel with a foot on the accelerator while the slushbox happily changes gears for them to achieve an even higher speed.

  • avatar

    Michal, I agree and I’ll add that the risk homeostasis theory has no basis in fact for driving. Show me a study — can’t be done, because there isn’t one.

    Regarding that hoary steel spike on the steering wheel, would you really have that in place of an airbag if some idiot decides to pull out in front of your car at the last second? Or are you supposed to drive at 10 mph so you can stop in time?

    Same goes for cable-actuated brakes on the rear axle (only) like the Model A Ford.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    I think that risk homeostasis is more than a theory — it is actually the missing link that explains why as cars get safer, traffic deaths do not decrease in proportion. (That said: they are decreasing in number!)

    The problem is measuring risk homeostasis. I know of no controlled testing environment for RH but if anybody does, I would appreciate their sharing it with us.

    The other week, I was at a traffic safety conference where the question was asked: all this stuff is nice and welcome, but what about compensatory risk behavior? The manager of the event replied: “Yes, exactly. Actually, we should arrange a conference on that very topic”.

  • avatar

    “How many people take their car to an empty parking lot the first snow-fall each year?”

    Yes! I use to do that. And, along with teaching my boys to drive stick, I would do it again, but alas, I live in Florida, so unless a new ice age comes that won’t happen.

    “So the headline is not quite correct. Safety technology doesn’t make cars unsafe, it makes the drivers unsafe.”

    I agree 100%

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