Friday, October 30, 2009

Honk! Will technology save us from ourselves?

When is "an important safety advance" perhaps not that safe after all? Is the answer to accidents between large, powerful and fast-moving motor vehicles and anyone else, pedestrians, cyclists and straying children and small animals included, to load on the technology to save us from ourselves? Or might it be something else, perhaps like slowing the cars on all our streets, is a better way to tackle this particular problem?

We of course vote for the latter, because we know from long experience that there are always drivers who are going to go as fast as the conditions permit. That's a fact and since this is the case, we have to slow them down through appropriate street architecture. Now let's read what our World Streets Sentinel, April Streeter, has recently written on this subject.

* Thanks to Ms. Streeter for her permission to reproduce. For the original piece, click to
Volvo Makes A Car That Stops For Pedestrians (and Next, For Bikes)

by April Streeter, Gothenburg, Sweden on 10.26.09

We talk a lot about cycling at TreeHugger, and cyclist safety. But the truth of the matter is we're all vulnerable pedestrians at one point or another, and speed still kills. But as Copenhagenize reports, Volvo, those Swedish safety experts, have been working on a system that recognizes pedestrians as they walk in front of a car's front end, and if the car's speed is under 25 kilometers per hour, automatically puts on full brakes.

Volvo may not be the best at snappy marketing monikers - the safety system is called Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake and Pedestrian Detection, and will be included in the next S60 sedan as an optional add-on in the $3,500 "premium package." The system is far from perfect -- it doesn't work at night, and it doesn't recognize bicycles -- but Volvo says it will continue to improve upon the design.

* Click here to view the Volvo video -

The system is a radar hidden behind the car grill and a video camera mounted by the rear-view mirror. While the radar spots objects at a distance, the camera hones in to identify where the object is say, a lamppost or a little kid. If the system identifies a person and a potential danger, an audible warning is accompanied by a flashing red light, similar to a brake light, designed to prompt a driver to brake. If the driver doesn't brake, the car brakes automatically.

Because pedestrians are definitely the most vulnerable members of the traffic fabric, Volvo engineers have focused on creating a system (10 years in the making) that could reduce accident rates -- 16% of all traffic-related deaths in Sweden are pedestrians, according to the Copenhagenize post, and 11% of all serious injuries in accidents are pedestrians. In fact, those safety-focused Swedes have a national goal that "nobody should be killed or seriously injured on the road transport system."

"Our aim is that this new technology should help the driver avoid collisions with pedestrians at speeds below 25 km/h. If the car is travelling faster, the aim is to reduce the impact speed as much as possible. In most cases, we can reduce the collision force by about 75 percent. Considering the large number of pedestrian fatalities that occur, if we manage to lower the fatality risk by 20 percent this new function will make a big difference." Volvo's Thomas Broberg said at

An even more interesting statistic is this -- Swedish research into collisions finds that 93% of accidents that occur happen because the "driver was occupied with something else other than driving."

Of course, there is the argument that smarter cars will equal dumber drivers. We vote for simply slowing down city traffic - when you are driving more slowly you have time to react to the unexpected, such as the child darting out in front of you. But would slower cars and trucks equal more road rage and more hatred for the human elements on our "complete" streets?

# # #

In this slot at the end of contributed articles, we generally try to place a few sober words that will permit our readers to know a bit about the author. But this time the temptation is too great, so now you have a short bio note in April's own words.

"April is a former bilingual cocktail waitress who left the warm beaches of Hawaii to pursue an upstanding career as reporter on the new and exciting digital world for MacWEEK magazine in San Francisco. When she finally couldn't stand the thought of writing about one more wireless local area network router, she recast herself as an environmental and sustainability journalist for Tomorrow magazine in Stockholm, Sweden. A few years later, she escaped the Scandinavian chill to become editor of Sustainable Industries magazine in Portland, Oregon. But eventually, the lure of endless months of darkness and sleety rain beckoned her back to Gothenburg, Sweden where she today is a freelance writer and Hatha yoga teacher forever on the lookout for a good/local/organic/sustainable/fair trade Swedish burrito."

Print this article