Getting around in New York City is an exercise in constant vigilance. If you are a pedestrian or bicyclist, you know that inattention can quickly lead to an injurious or fatal accident involving a motor vehicle. And if you drive, you likely know that other cars, bicyclists and pedestrians are unpredictable. You simply cannot afford to multitask behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, many drivers are still giving in to distraction. And ironically, some of main facilitators of distraction are the various technologies meant to make driving simpler and safer. Vehicle automation seems to be making drivers feel more comfortable with disengagement.

Research reveals problems with automation tech

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tracked the habits of 20 drivers for an entire month. The volunteers were given vehicles with specific safety features that assisted with tasks such as maintaining a certain distance behind other cars or staying in one’s lane, in addition to cruise control. One group had vehicles with fewer automation features (level 1), and the other group had vehicles with more automation features (level 2).

Participants were then monitored to see how often they disengaged from the task of driving. This could include behaviors such as taking hands off the wheel, checking a cellphone, adjusting console settings, etc. When the study began and participants were not very familiar with the technology, drivers were not very likely to disengage from the task of driving. As they study went on, however, both groups became more comfortable with the technology and began to disengage more often. Those driving the level 2 vehicles were more likely to disengage than those driving the level 1 vehicles.

A false sense of security

Drivers likely feel freer to shift focus away from driving because they assume that these “driver assistance” features will pick up the slack. To a small extent, this is true. But this technology still has trouble responding to fairly routine road features and minor obstacles, meaning that the driver needs to be ready to take over at any moment. But drivers don’t always realize this, and the marketing for these features can be misleading. Tesla, for instance, has been criticized for calling its driver-assist technology “Autopilot,” because that implies that drivers are free to disengage almost entirely. Indeed, numerous tragic and fatal crashes in Teslas have been blamed on this misconception.

Who bears liability?

Drivers are responsible for understanding how their vehicles work and what the limitations are. At the same time, automakers must be truthful and transparent about what their safety features can and cannot do. After a crash caused by overreliance on automation, both the at-fault driver and the automaker could potentially face liability for negligence. Lawsuits related to vehicle automation will only increase in the coming years as use of this technology grows.