Drifting Away? Maybe a Lane Departure Warning System Will Help

Sleep Driver
Get some sleep to stay safe on the road. Photo: Unsplash

Drifting out of your lane?  You’re not alone.

It’s midnight. You’re driving home after a concert. You’re super sleepy, but don’t have the luxury of stopping because you have to be at work in the morning. Bummer!
You grab a coffee, roll down the windows, and turn the stereo up to level 11. Despite your best efforts, you nod off for a split second. Uh-oh. You are stirred awake when your steering wheel starts to vibrate – you’ve drifted outside of your lane.

You’re not alone. Lane departures are one of the most common causes of traffic accidents resulting in 1.6 million collisions annually. This story illustrates a safety feature that’s available on most new vehicles: lane departure warning systems. This technology is meant to reduce the number of accidents that occur due to driver error, distractions, and drowsiness.

What is a lane departure warning system and how does it work?

Vehicles with lane departure warning systems have sensors that are able to identify roadway markings. If a driver accidentally drifts outside of her lane, she will be notified by a beeping noise or vibration. To override this response, a driver must use a turn signal.
Of course nothing is 100% effective; if lane markings are covered with leaves, snow, fog, or debris, the feature is useless. If a road doesn’t have any kind of lane markings, the same point applies. It’s good to be alert at all times, but aim to be hyper aware in those situations. Your safety depends on it!

Lane Departure System

Lane assist will nudge the driving back into the lane. Photo: Audi

There’s more help with lane keeping assist

If the lane departure warning isn’t enough to get a driver back on track, there’s another safety feature available: lane keeping assist. Suppose you don’t respond to the beep or vibration of your car’s lane departure warning system within a certain amount of time – your vehicle will automatically steer itself back to the center. You can override this action by turning the wheel.
See the difference? Lane departure warning systems inform the driver of a problem, but that might not be enough to prevent a wreck. With lane keeping assist, if the driver is too slow, the car will respond for automatically by taking corrective action. It’s an emergency fail-safe. You can see a list of vehicles that offer this feature on this Wikipedia page.

Is all this new safety technology working?

Auto safety experts saw incredible potential in this technology with head-on collisions caused by lane departures projected to decrease by 46%. However, research shows that was too optimistic as accidents only decreased by 1-8%.

Even so, automakers are moving forward with this technology. Lane departure warning systems were available on approximately 50% of new vehicles in 2015.

Russ Rader, senior VP of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says, “We haven’t seen evidence they are working yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be effective in the future, but we haven’t seen it show up in crash data yet.”

One limitation of the research is that these cars come with many safety features making it difficult to determine which feature actually prevented the accident.

Lane Departure Systems

Lane departure and lane assist systems help keep you safe. Photo: Creative Commons

Are either of these safety features worth your hard-earned money?

Whether or not these safety features are worth the money depends on your outlook. If you want hard proof the technology works, I’m afraid there isn’t much. Still, some folks would benefit from this technology. For example, new drivers drift out of their lanes more often than experienced ones, so they might appreciate the reminder. Or if you drive long distances late at night and are afraid of dozing off, you might be comforted by the fact that your car can correct course when needed.

Does your car come equipped with lane keeping assist or a lane departure warning system? If so, how do you like it? Would you recommend it to your friends? Tell us why in the comments.

Master mechanic, automotive expert and teacher, Audra Fordin is the author of End Auto Anxiety, CEO of Women Auto... More about Audra Fordin