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Canadians ill-informed about vehicle safety systems

Some results of a TIRF survey on vehicle safety systems are disturbing

Published: July 13, 2012, 5:00 PM

Mercedes-Benz Collision Warning System

Safety is a high priority for drivers making vehicle purchasing decisions, according to a recent study by Canada's Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF).

Drivers polled cited safety as an important consideration when buying a new vehicle, along with price, reliability, and fuel efficiency – all of which is consistent with results from other studies.

Significantly, however, with the exceptions of ABS and traction control, less than one-third of those drivers said they were familiar with such modern safety features as ESC (Electronic Stability Control), brake assist, adaptive headlights, and collision warning systems.

ESC is now a mandatory feature on all new cars and light trucks sold in Canada (since September 2011).

"To some extent, it is not unusual that Canadians have much greater familiarity with ABS as it has been widely available for almost 30 years, unlike newer technologies such as lane departure warning systems which have only become available in the last ten years," explained Robyn Robertson, TIRF President and CEO."

Other studies have shown that these safety features prevent crashes and injuries when used alongside safe driving practices.

Surprisingly, however, fewer than half (40.3%) the respondents agreed that safety features help protect drivers in the event of a collision and only 46.4% agreed that safety features can help protect passengers in the event of a collision.

Men and drivers who reported familiarity with safety features were more likely to correctly report that they offer more protection to vehicle occupants in the event of a crash.

Drivers who perceive safety features as useful are much more likely to indicate they would use the safety features if their vehicle already had them.

Some results disturbing

TIRF also investigated the effects of vehicle safety features on driving habits – specifically, whether and to what extent different beliefs about safety features may influence some drivers to drive less carefully by engaging in dangerous driving behaviours.

Some of those results were equally disturbing.

When asked whether they would drink and drive if their vehicle was equipped with modern safety features, 7.5% of Canadian drivers said that they would be likely or very likely to do so, compared to 3.2% who reported that they currently often drink and drive.

Those responses suggest that some drivers are more willing to engage in what many consider to be the most serious road safety issue (i.e., drinking and driving) when they know that they have modern safety features on their vehicle.

Further examples of such behavioural adaptation include:

- 13.1% of drivers said that they would be likely to tailgate others if their vehicle had safety features, compared to 8.6% currently;

- 20.0% said that they would be likely to drive while tired or fatigued if their vehicle had safety features, compared to 16.0% currently

On the subject of aftermarket accessories, a third (33.8%) of those surveyed assumed that aftermarket accessories like floor mats and remote starters are safe just because they are sold in stores. And almost one-third (30.5%) of drivers said they would buy an aftermarket accessory that was not designed for their vehicle.

Most drivers 'better than average'

When asked to rate their own driving in terms of safety, the most common self-rating was an eight out of ten (44.6%), three units higher than the most common rating Canadians gave to their fellow motorists (27.7% rated others a ‘5’). Thus, the majority of Canadian drivers feel that they are much safer than the average driver.

The TIRF survey has exposed some serious misperceptions about both safety features currently found in many vehicles and the safety of aftermarket accessories not specifically designed for individual vehicles.

When asked whether other drivers rely too much on vehicle safety features, 64.8% agreed that other drivers rely too much on their safety features and do not pay enough attention to driving.

In summary, significant knowledge gaps have been identified in the Canadian driver populace, specifically for the eight newer safety features included in the survey.

Canadian drivers continue to form opinions concerning the ease of use and usefulness of safety features despite lacking important details concerning the purposes and limits of those features, the report observed.

Accordingly, a big part of motivating drivers to use safety features includes helping them to understand when these safety features are useful and what they are designed to do, the study concluded.

"It is important that we continue to increase awareness of the availability and use of these features among drivers as they enter the market, to help keep drivers safe on our roads," said Robertson.

The poll, which was sponsored by the Toyota Canada Foundation and developed and conducted by TIRF, contained 120 items designed to explore a range of issues relating to vehicle safety features and driving habits. A total of 2,506 Canadian drivers were surveyed over the period November 2011 – January 2012.