Are we worse drivers than before?

There are hundreds of technological aids in cars nowadays. But has that made us worse drivers than our forefathers?

From April 1, 2019, all vehicles sold in India will have to pass offset frontal crash tests and will mandatorily have safety features such as front airbags — only driver and front passenger airbags are mandated — as well as Anti-Lock Brakes and the associated Electronic Brake Distribution. All of these features were much-needed but unfortunately, thanks to a recalcitrant industry, had to be mandated by the government. The industry, with some exceptions, felt that these features were “expensive” and not needed in India. However, sales data for vehicles, particularly premium hatchbacks and sedans showed that customers wanted such features. Seven years ago when I bought my last car, a Hyundai i20, I bought the Asta specification that came with front airbags and ABS, which was rare back then but in the intervening years has become increasingly popular as buyers want basic safety features. At the same time, airbags (despite the Takata controversy) and ABS+EBD have become a lot cheaper.


It is no surprise that many manufacturers, particularly those whose cars will easily pass the 2019 crash test norms, have already made airbags and ABS+EBD standard fitment on their cars. Some, like Toyota on its new sedan the Yaris, which I have driving this past week, seven airbags are standard along with ABS+EBD. Of course, all these additional safety features are supplementary to basic safety features like seatbelts and “crush zones”, so unless one does something monumentally stupid or drives at patently illegal speeds, the chances of getting very badly hurt in a car accident are far lower today than ever before and from next April onwards, the odds will be even lower.


But, I digress from the topic I wanted to write about. Have these advanced safety features made us worse drivers?  I was talking to my father who learnt driving on a surplus military Willys Jeep in the 1960s. This was a basic vehicle, no power steering and crucially no synchromesh gears, you actually had to listen to the engine note to change gears perfectly to ensure that the cogs sat properly. This was a skill that you honed through the years and if you missed that perfect moment, you had to physically almost push the gear into place and endure that horrible sound of metal on metal. And while I have driven older cars with older gearboxes and cars without power steering, it is not something you always look forward to. Synchromesh gears and power steering have not made us worse drivers but definitely lazier.


Take a look at safety and car control features. The single most irritating thing according to me on modern cars are the massive A-pillars, that is the pillars of the car between which the windshield is placed. Just for comparison, look at an Ambassador and a modern car, say the Ford EcoSport. The Ford has an elephant’s leg for its A-Pillar, the Ambassador’s pillar is narrower than  the hair on an elephants tail. I’m not arguing that this has made us worse drivers, but when you know that the car will keep you safe because it will absorb the impact and the steering column will not impale your rib-cage, you tend to take a few more chances. And then there are airbags, so well, you know you will be safer when you crash a car while trying to update your Instagram feed. Which is something your parents could not do because they were not stupid enough to use smartphones which didn’t exist anyway. Mandatory warning, please do not try to text while driving, although I do recommend that if you are looking at a new car, choose one with smartphone extensions such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which allow voice-control features, which incidentally is the biggest single negative on the Toyota Yaris I’m driving right now which doesn’t feature these.


But now we come to anti-lock brakes and electronic brake distribution. In older cars, braking at the right time is a skill as is driving on loose surfaces. You learn, at least I did, to always brake in a straight line. If you brake into a turn, you risk locking up your wheels, and in front-wheel drive cars run the risk of understeering, that is not turning as much as the input you gave the steering wheel. But now, I can attack corners and even brake in the middle of corners, particularly when I have to deal with moronic idiots who have parked where they shouldn’t. I’ve also noticed, because I have the confidence of ABS+EBD and often even car stability programmes on some vehicles, I tend to charge into corners a lot faster than I would have in yesterday’s cars. But when you get so used to such features, it becomes difficult if not nearly impossible to deal with a car without these features for many folks. Last year, I drove the new BMW M5 around the Estoril racetrack in Portugal, but we also got to drive the older M5s, cars with much less power, but nothing like modern ABS features or airbags. You have to treat those vehicles with respect, because while the new M5 is a delightful car, it is incredibly safe and even, easy, to drive. The older ones? I’d just say that they are exhilarating but scary AF on mountain roads and you are always reminding yourself to be careful.


And now with semi-autonomous features becoming standard on some luxury cars, and likely to make it down the value chain in the next couple of years, will make matters even worse in my opinion. Driving is a skill that we are forgetting, we have forgotten the nuances of perfect gear shifts particularly with more and more automatic transmissions coming on to the market, snappy steering changes and what not. And that in my opinion is tragic. But, on the other hand I have always believed that increased safety is vital and safer cars are important.


(Ask Kushan your car queries on Twitter at @kushanmitra)

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