Are those features in that new company car safe?

Jun 12, 2013

By Doug Annett

Red carWhen people buy a car based on their personal income and budget, there’s a good bet they are pretty aware of the features and options they’re paying for. This isn’t always the case with company cars, which are often chosen without driver input. This could affect driver safety.

I am reminded of a presentation by a car salesman at a National Association of Fleet Administrators function. The topic was the salesperson’s proper, professional delivery of a new company car to the corporate driver in a concise, informative, 30-minute meeting. The presenter started by stating that the first 25 minutes of the allotted time was spent waiting for the telephone call from the client explaining that they would be late. The other car salespersons in the room roared with laughter, having experienced exactly this scenario too many times. The fleet administrators didn’t see the humour.

The point is that many corporate fleet drivers are too busy to familiarize themselves with all the details associated with increasingly complex new cars. Owners manuals can run to hundreds of pages; some are on CDs and consulted only to find out how to pre-set the radio stations.

Notwithstanding the complexity of new cars, we are encouraged to simplify our lives by implicitly trusting the embedded technological gadgetry. New car commercials show happy families or daredevil canyon carvers respectively appreciating everything their new wheels can do for them despite the limitations of weather, traffic or Newton’s laws of motion. Ever since the first “shiftless” transmission, we have loved the word “automatic.” But “automatic,” “new,” or “improved” aren’t always better, especially if they enable drivers to pay less attention to what they should be doing. Two examples follow, as well as suggestions for fleet managers on keeping drivers safe.

If drivers buy into the idea that using headlights all the time enhances their safety, they will similarly adopt the better habit of consciously turning on the headlights, even though it requires extra thought and effort. This is the perfect closed loop risk reduction process that we all see benefits in.

Two new twists on common technologies

Since 1960, Greyhound Bus Lines has operated with headlights on in the daytime as a safety measure to help reduce the risk of head-on collisions. Drivers thinking about passing on a two-lane highway thought twice when they saw the shimmering bus headlights. This concept was slow to take hold among the general public, but over the years, many more companies made it their policy to use low beam headlights on a fulltime basis. In the 1970s, Ontario made it mandatory for motorcycles to use headlights at all times. In 1990, all cars sold in Canada were required to have daytime running lights (DRL). I still recommend using normal low beam headlights in the daytime because DRL regulations do not require illumination of the tail lights and side marker lights.

I tend to favour active driver participation in the safety process. If drivers recognize that it is getting dark, they will turn their own lights on for their own benefit. If they buy into the idea that using headlights all the time enhances their safety, they will similarly adopt the better habit of consciously turning on the headlights, even though it requires extra thought and effort. This is the perfect closed loop risk reduction process that we all see benefits in.

In a select, small population such as a corporate fleet, agreement and compliance with certain procedures are more easily attained than with the general population. DRLs are a less than perfect solution, but when the system is manufactured into the car, compliance is demanded, even from the objectors.

Objections came from two camps. The most vocal were the folks that never see any reason for change. The more substantive came from environmentalists who proved that using DRLs would require vehicles to use more fuel to keep the lights on. True enough, but it turned out that the extra fuel amounted to about a penny a day. With more cars using more efficient LEDs, this cost has likely gone down.

The saying “perfect” is the enemy of “good” usually means that while we are busy striving to find the perfect solution, we overlook something that is a good option. We now have a “good” system displacing the “perfect” system of self-aware drivers taking positive action. I suppose the introduction of the “good” system of “automatic” headlights was a step forward for drivers who were not ready to fully buy in to the concept of active safety.

Somewhere along the timeline, manufacturers started installing automatic headlights. The idea was a good one. The DRLs would operate in the daylight and when it got dark a sensor would turn the full headlight system on. The plan was that the automatic headlight system would look after drivers who were too lazy to notice that the sun had gone down. What could be wrong with that? Two things.

The first is simply a matter of engineering. The sensor triggers the headlights to go on at a much lower light level than the eye registers as appropriate. The other is that the driver has to actually turn the switch to the “automatic” setting. Remember the salesman at the NAFA meeting?

The second is the driver’s role in managing safety systems. Electronic LED-lit dashboards are always illuminated, reducing drivers’ sensitivity to the need for external lighting changes. DRLs themselves are bright enough that drivers in well- lit urban areas probably don’t notice the need to turn the headlights on and have no idea that their taillights are not on. I am not being sarcastic when I report that intelligent, competent people admit in front of their peers in a classroom that they have driven for months without ever touching the light switch because they believed the lights were controlled automatically. More and more vehicles are being driven in the dark and in low light conditions with only the forward DRLs and no tail lights because of the mistaken belief in automatic headlights.

Automatic headlights are a solution to a problem that nobody had. The only solution to remedy the problems created by automatic headlights is to build cars with no headlight switch at all. When the car starts, the full lighting system comes on.