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Driver assistance systems will make roadways safer

Interstate 70 through west-central Indiana has been the scene of a number of horrific crashes in which people have suffered fatal or serious injuries. Many of those crashes have involved vehicles failing to slow down or stop for slowed or stopped vehicles ahead.

The most recent in this area occurred on Dec. 29 and involved a Tesla electric car crashing into a parked firetruck near Terre Haute. The emergency vehicle was in a travel lane with lights flashing while its crew worked another problem in the roadway.

The crash claimed the life of a passenger in the Tesla. The driver was also seriously injured.

While the Tesla crash is similar to other fatal crashes on the interstate in recent years, this one has interesting twists.

First, the cause the crash was a passenger vehicle slamming into a stopped vehicle. Most crashes of this type involve large commercial vehicles — 40-ton semi trucks — slamming into stopped traffic ahead. While normal sized passenger vehicles do cause crashes when a driver becomes distracted and runs into stopped or slowed traffic, a large truck tends to cause a lot more mayhem.

Second, the Tesla crash has sparked the attention of the U.S. government. The National Transportation Safety Administration said last week it is sending a special team to investigate the Tesla crash.

Why?

Federal safety officials are taking special interest in the Tesla crash because the electric vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, a system designed to keep a car in its lane and a safe distance from other vehicles. It can also change lanes on its own.

Officials want to know if Autopilot was in use on the Tesla when the crash occurred. The agency is also investigating several other crashes across the country involving vehicles equipped with driver assistance technology. Because the technology is relatively new, transportation officials are taking special interest whenever crashes occur to assess whether the systems are operating properly or if a malfunction contributed to the crash.

Investigating the safety of new technology is always a good practice and we support the federal government's oversight activities.

But it's wise to keep in mind that Tesla and other automakers have said repeatedly that their systems are designed to assist drivers, who must still pay attention and be prepared to intervene at all times. Used properly, such systems will make vehicle travel safer, they say, although no system can prevent all crashes.

What's most important is to realize that distracted driving is most often the culprit in crashes. New technology such as emergency-braking and crash-avoidance systems will ultimately serve as mechanisms to prevent crashes when a driver may not be paying close attention to the roadway ahead.

New technology in motor vehicles should be embraced. The more of it we see in vehicles large and small the safer highway traveling will be for everyone.

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