Further Thoughts on Seat Belts

A commenter some time back posed a question about safety.  “When will the autonomous car be safe enough to not need a seat belt?” There are really several questions combined together that we will tackle individually.

First is the question as stated.  “When will the autonomous car be safe enough to not require seat belts?”  First, let us leave aside the fact that most buses are currently considered safe enough to not require belts.  So when would (small) autonomous vehicles be considered safe enough?  Naturally, the autonomous accident rate would have to be substantially lower then that for other vehicles.  Upon initial deployment, autonomous vehicles are likely to be at a level of safety far higher than that of normal vehicles  In fact when only accounting for autonomous vehicles, they are likely to approach perfection.

This leads to another question.  That question is how frequently will autonomous vehicle get hit by other vehicles, and when will that that frequency permit the abandonment of seat belt use?  There are two pieces to this question.  One is whether autonomous cars on their own will be able to avoid accidents otherwise caused by human drivers.  If a-cars cannot avoid accidents caused by human drivers to a degree that would preclude the need for seat belts, at what point will there be few enough human drivers to allow the rest to not wear seatbelts?  I anticipate that when the number of human drivers is less than 10%, seat belts will not longer be necessary for any meaningful safety gain.  However, with automatic features, it’s possible that autonomous and automatic cars will control lanes of highway traffic well before they consist of 90% of the vehicles.

This naturally leads to a question about automatic cars.  When will there be enough automatic cars that can drive safely at highway speeds that highways can become seatbelt-free?  Whenever that happens, we could very well see a situation in which a driver is belted in until on the highway, and can then remove his seatbelt and proceed to move around the cabin of the car.  Once it is time to exit the highway, the car would direct him to return to his seat and then belt up again.  I expect that this may happen in some areas within a couple of years of the adaptation of autonomous vehicles.  I will be surprised if I don’t see this in the next 10 years.

The final driver for the ability to travel without a seatbelt will be governmental regulations.  Currently, all 50 states require the front passengers to wear seat belts at all times.  Until recently, seat belt violations were a secondary offense.  That is, if a driver was caught for another violation, then they could also get ticketed for a seat belt violation as well.

As autonomous cars begin to offer meaningful decreases in accidents, one possibility will be that passengers in autonomous cars will begin to abandon the wearing of seatbelts.  Eventually, constituents will pressure their legislatures to make seat belt laws a secondary offence.  Since autonomous cars will not break the law, there will be no opportunity to enforce the secondary offence.

The aspect of driving that will delay the abandonment of seatbelts the longest will not be lack of adoption of automation or autonomy.  Rather, it will be autonomous cars’ avoidance of unexpected objects.  While an accident will not be caused, the ability of an autonomous car to nimbly evade a collision through abrupt steering could cause vehicle occupants injury if they are not belted in.

So “When will the autonomous car be safe enough to not need a seat belt?”  That will only happen after the autonomous car can be expected to not regularly encounter obstacles which need to be avoided.


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