Automotive Technology: The good, the bad and the safe

By Steven Heisler

Detroit wasn’t the only city dependent on the auto industry. The daily operation of our government's business is moved by vehicles – law enforcement, facilities departments, public works and even parks and recreation. The days of horse-drawn fire engines are long gone, and we are reliant on today’s vehicles to facilitate the operations of our state and local governments.

Our cars have so much technology in them, and associated with them, that these days it’s hard to know where the car ends and the computers begin. Even our most basic cars have at least 30 microprocessors (sometimes called a computer on a chip), and many have from 50 to as many as 100 microprocessors, managing and controlling everything from steering to acceleration to tire pressure sensors to systems that monitor the drivers’ personal comfort.

Is all this technology a good thing for public sector fleets? Which advances are good (i.e., safety-enhancing), which ones are bad (i.e., safety-reducing)? Here’s a look at some of the more common gadgets and systems.

Which Technologies Are Safety-Reducing?

Almost everyone agrees that the following technological advances reduce safety, mostly because they promote distracted driving, causing drivers to take their eyes off the road, minds off driving, or hands off the wheel:

  • Cell phones/smart phones. These addictive little computers are perhaps the worst offenders when it comes to distracted driving, taking away our attention, our hands (via texting), and our eyes (via reading or checking routes). As many as 1.6 million crashes every year implicate cell phone usage in some way. Is it any wonder at this point that all states have some kind of law against texting or against using phones while driving?
  • Radios, mobile data terminals (MDTs), and onboard computers are all common in a variety of fleet vehicles. Each can also distract and impair the driver’s attention, leading to a recent increase in distracted driving accidents by police officers and other government agencies.

Which Technologies Are Safety-Enhancing?

Some tech really does save lives in proven ways. The following advances are only a sampling of the ones that have advanced safety the most:

  • Backup cameras. Testing by Consumer Reports revealed that for some of the vehicles with the worst rear visibility when the driver was shorter, a small child could not be seen when it was less than 70 feet from the rear bumper. Backup cameras save lives.
  • Lane departure systems. These systems work via sensors that detect lane markings on the road, and are sometimes linked to blind spot detection systems. A lane detection system alerts the driver when he or she strays outside the lane, as usually happens when someone alls asleep at the wheel. Lane departure systems are valuable advances when it comes to accident prevention and saving lives.

Mitigating the Risks at the Local Level

Until drones become fully integrated in our world and we are getting around like the Jetsons in our flying spaceships, it is incumbent on us to consider ways to encourage use of safety-enhancing technologies while steering clear of safety-reducing tech.

  • Public safety and government employees are oftentimes not alone in a vehicle. When a passenger is present, the driver should remember to delegate tasks (such as navigation and radio communications) to allow the driver to remain focused on the road.
  • Implementing and enforcing policies that prohibit computer use while driving is a necessary consideration for fleet managers. While officers and government officials may rely on their onboard computers in their work, these devices should be shut down while driving (or over certain speeds) for the safety of everyone on the road.
  • State and local governments have had to negotiate increasingly stringent budgetary cuts alongside growing demands. Older vehicles without the above noted safety-reducing technologies can increase the risks for drivers and others on the road. Cutting investment in fleet maintenance and procurement is not always the wisest decision.

What Can We Conclude?

On the whole, systems built into our cars that take over the tasks of accident avoidance and mitigation, without needing our interaction, are “good tech.” These systems are the ones that save the most lives without distracting us. Add-on tech, such as our phones or certain GPS systems, is often “bad tech.” These items are prime distractors, causing accidents, injuries, and deaths. And, as always, it will take the law a while to catch up with the latest and greatest technological advances.

In the meantime, state and local officials can work to educate staff and develop/update/enforce safe driving policies that take the latest technology into consideration.

A former Golden Gloves boxer, Steve Heisler enjoys his battles in the courtroom these days as an injury attorney in Baltimore. He can be reached at



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What's Viewpoints?

It features the Editor's Viewpoints and contributed commentaries.


Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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