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But if you're driving a car that slows down when it detects another vehicle in front of you, you've still got to worry about cars to the left and right. AgeLab's Reimer says it isn't clear whether the new technology will make you more or less aware of these dangers. Since you no longer have to pay as much attention to what's in front of you, you could devote more of your attention to your blind spots and peripheral lanes. On the other hand, you could decide to devote more of your attention to your BlackBerry—in which case you'd be worse off than if your car didn't have smart cruise control.
Reimer doesn't have any data to say which scenario will play out. But for cultural reasons, he suspects today's baby boomers will choose their cell phones over safety. "They're going to self-regulate in a different way," he says. "They're going to be more willing to engage in secondary activities that the World War II generation wouldn't imagine engaging in. The World War II generation doesn't drive and talk on the phone. They would never consider that. They never did. The boomers have been doing it for years. Do you see them giving up that connectivity?"
Reimer isn't saying that new safety technologies will make roads more dangerous; they may very well prevent the worst types of crashes, such as the Santa Monica accident. But their potential is limited. This is a well-known paradox in car safety research, something called the "offset hypothesis"—people act more irresponsibly when they're driving cars they think are safer. Both anti-lock brakes and airbags were expected to reduce the incidence of car accidents. Neither did because people offset the potential gains in safety by driving more aggressively.
For years, car safety researchers have been calling for more frequent testing—or at least mandatory education—of drivers as they age. But for social and political reasons, few states have such requirements. Talk of taking cars away from old people is about as treacherous politically as angling to reduce Medicare or Social Security benefits. The discussion also raises all kinds of difficult public policy questions: If we prohibit old people from driving, will we provide better public transportation for them? Will we have doctors make house calls?
Laansoo imagines that in the very distant future, cars will hook into road sensors and satellites and become so "aware" of their surroundings that they "will take away a lot of the demand from the driver, and there's going to be an argument that it's not going to be quite as important for an older driver to have perfect vision or mobility." But until then, we might be in for some hairy times.
About 40,000 people die on the roads in America each year. As the driving population ages, Reimer says, we probably won't see a great deal more crashes, but because old people die more easily than young people, we could see more fatalities. That very danger, though, could spark changes in behavior—even distracted boomers may come to realize that staying alive on the road is more important than checking their e-mail.