Actress Lindsay Lohan regularly demonstrates why auto insurance companies should stay in business.
In her sixth infamous car wreck, Lohan demolished her Porsche 911 on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Monica, Calif. The front end appeared to have been stomped on by Bigfoot, but Lohan walked away with no damage.
An article I read in USA Today used this latest incident as a way to extol the virtues of a Porsche: six airbags, struts that support the roof, and ultra-high-strength steel. But this is true of a lot of cars. During the past six years cars have gotten safer -- and will only improve in the future.
But what I can't figure out is why drivers seem to get dumber when you engineer smarter and safer cars.
Dumb and dumber
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 7,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in the first three months of this year, about a 14 percent increase over the same period last year. According to their statistics, this would be the first time fatalities have gone up in the winter months since 2006. And if the NHTSA's projections prove right, this represents the second largest increase since it began recording traffic fatalities in 1975.
So let's get back to my question. It's not a stretch to say that as cars get smarter, drivers do dumber things, such as dawdling in the left lane while talking or texting on a cell phone. Car makers seem to encourage this type of behavior by selling vehicles with Internet and social networking, despite the objections of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who says they should work only when the car is stopped. Anecdotal evidence -- such as Kerry Kennedy's crash - reveals that people are also using prescription drugs such as sleep-aid Ambien while driving.
Meet George Jetson
Research consulting firm Celent, which specializes in insurance issues, released a report predicting that as cars become technologically safe with in-vehicle monitoring, crash avoidance and automated traffic law enforcement, auto insurance could become obsolete. Celent analyst Donald Light admits that this is a "blue-sky" projection; insurers say he's orbiting in outer space. Driver behavior isn't changing.
For example, by now we've all seen the Progressive television commercial promoting its Snapshot program, in which an on-board computer monitors your driving habits and promises lower rates for safe driving. But as one insurer puts it, "the people who would benefit most from this safety feature don't want it." Volvo's collision-avoidance feature is also supposed to be good. But judging by people I've spoken to, even cautious Volvo owners don't seem to like it and turn it off.
Then there's the Law of Unintended Consequences. In 2010 the NHTSA noticed that pedestrian deaths had risen 4 percent from the previous year, possibly due to more joggers and walkers on the road. So it's proposing new rules like making car bumpers "softer." But the softer the bumper, the less the car is protected from high-speed crackups a la Lohan.
So the feedback from auto insurer is this: Don't expect any discounted rates for "safer" cars for about five to 10 years. Unlike most drivers, the insurance industry moves very slowly.