Are ‘smart’ cars creating dumb drivers?

The prevalence of driver aids is increasing all the time, even into lower priced cars.

Cameras and sensors can alert you if you are drifting out of your lane (and bring you back into it, in many cases) or gaining on a car ahead with too much speed (and, again, apply the brakes if necessary). Adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist technology make it possible to drive for many kilometres on a freeway with little or no input from the driver (although Australian rules require that the driver keeps his/her hands on the wheel, and there’s usually a warning if the hands are off the wheel for 10 seconds or more).

Ian Luff is a skilled defensive driving instructor with 38 years’ experience. When ABS (anti-lock braking system) was being introduced, he demonstrated just how much more effective it was at stopping a car than the driver (although he also pointed out that early versions didn’t apply the brakes if the car was travelling in reverse because the sensors couldn’t detect it).

He is increasingly concerned that technology is breeding a generation of complacent drivers. “Things have become sanitised and manufacturers have done a great job, but people still need to be aware of the risks of driving in today’s busy environment,” he says.

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That sentiment is echoed by auto expert John Cadogan, another proponent of driver training and education. He argues that many people are simply not aware that driving is dangerous. They have been driving for years and are still alive and regard driving as second nature and unthreatening, he observes.

Mr Luff also comments on the reluctance of Australian drivers to revisit driver training once they have passed their basic P-plate test. “It’s a mindset with people,” he said, “they believe they don’t need a driving program because they’ve done the hill start, reverse park and three point turn to get their licence.”

When drivers encounter a dangerous situation in Australia, it’s often the first time they’ve ever faced it. For example, dropping a wheel off the bitumen into the gravel that lines our regional roads shouldn’t be a problem, but many drivers panic, over-react, haul on the steering wheel and crash head-on into oncoming traffic. A simple occurrence that shouldn’t have had any consequences becomes a fatal road ‘accident’.

“Technology has changed so much from what people learnt on,” adds Mr Luff, “and herein lies the problem – it’s ignorance and a little bit of arrogance of people.”

We could also add overconfidence and inability to assess risk.

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Motor vehicle crashes causing personal injury or vehicle damage, quite apart from the personal and emotional trauma inflicted, cost Australia $27 billion a year.

Mr Luff points out that 30 per cent of car crashes are people running into the rear of another car. “This proves that 30 per cent of people are tailgaters,” he concludes. “Most people have no idea of how long it physically takes, in meterage, to stop a car under any conditions.”

And he would know, having seen driver behaviour at first hand in his training courses around Australia.

Should drivers be required to ‘refresh’ their skills with more regular testing? Are smart cars responsible for a loss of driving skills?

Paul Murrell is a motoring writer and creator of, which specialises in “car advice for people whose age and IQ are both over 50”. This article first appeared on

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Written by Paul Murrell

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