Do You Know What Those Lights On Your Dashboard Are Telling You?

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You’re not alone. Safety technology needs explaining.

“This icon popped up on my dash and I didn’t know what it meant,” said Alex Epstein. If anyone should know, it’s him. As the director of digital strategy and content at the National Safety Council, Alex heads up the council’s effort to educate drivers about all the safety technology at work in their cars.

When he couldn’t find the icon in his car’s manual, he called the dealer. They didn’t know either. They suggested he take a photo of it and send it to them. “I can’t. I’m driving!” he said.

Icons tell you a gazillion things. Decoding them, however, is the challenge

And that’s the problem: Even the experts have trouble discerning what a car’s iconography means. But, Alex and a team at the University of Iowa are partnering to try to solve this.

Cars can warn us about this and dozens of dangers, from slowing traffic ahead to malfunctioning systems or pedestrians that are about to enter your path. But all this new technology is often paired with strange icons that might leave drivers scratching their heads rather than taking precautions.Safety Technology

My Car Does What?

Enter the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa. The two collaborated to survey consumers about their knowledge of auto safety technology and cite some frightening findings:

  • 35,000 people die in cars on America’s roads every year
  • Rear end collisions represent 3 out of 10 serious crashes
  • Auto crashes actually went UP with the introduction of active safety technology because drivers didn’t understand how to use it
  • 65% of people surveyed didn’t understand how adaptive cruise control works
  • About half didn’t understand the function of lane departure warnings or forward collision warnings
  • 40% reported their car acting in an unexpected or startling way
  • Only 33% sought an answer as to why their car acted unexpectedly
  • 57% of respondents go to Google to understand in-car safety technology (while 49% turn to the owner’s manual)

Their research also found that if people don’t understand in-car safety technology, they are less likely to purchase it in a new car or use it in their current car.

This research led to the campaign and informational web site called My Car Does What?, named by project manager Ashley McDonald, who, in focus groups with consumers kept hearing the phrase over and over again: people were surprised at the technology in their cars.

A program inspired by confusion but funded by lawsuits

Safety Technology

Just some of the safety technology icons that you may see on your dashboard that are explained by the My Car Does What? campaign

The program was started three years ago after a settlement resulting from the Toyota unintentional acceleration lawsuits (and more specifically, lawsuits that resulted from lower resale values due to the scandal). The courts set aside $30 million to be dedicated to consumer education. A proposal by the University of Iowa landed a large grant to collaborate with the NSC.

From their research, the NSC and UI identified some consumer education initiatives to help prevent crashes: Teaching drivers more about in-car tech, help them to feel confident using it and reinforcing the idea that safety technology doesn’t replace good driving, it simply assists.

To help consumers better understand the technology in their cars, the team identified 30 safety functions and the basic icons that identify them (however, each auto manufacturer identifies tech with an icon and name that may vary from others in the industry). The site helps consumers to find the icon they may be seeing on their car’s dashboard and get an explanation about what it means.

Oh, and that icon that stumped Alex? It indicates that a drop in temperature has been detected and icy roads may result.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss