COMMENT:

Almost 400 lives were lost on New Zealand roads last year, with speeding being one of the leading causes of vehicle accidents.

New legislation agreed on in the European Union aims to reduce the number of road deaths by enforcing speed limiters to be installed on all cars within the next five years. So should New Zealand follow suit to help reduce our road toll or is this yet another move towards a nanny state?

The physics is simple, the speed of a vehicle is directly related to the force created in an impact. Basically, the faster you go the more likely you are to have a crash, and the greater the chance of severe injury or death occurring as a result of an accident.

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Even though our cars can drive much faster than they could in the 1960s, road traffic death rates have decreased as a proportion to car ownership population since this date. This is mostly thanks to interventions like compulsory wearing of seat belts, enforcement of alcohol levels and speed limits, as well as safer designs of roads and vehicles.

Today the main contributing factors to road traffic accidents are speed, distraction and impairment - from drugs, alcohol and fatigue - while driving.

Our cars, however, are getting smarter and most new vehicles are equipped with autonomous driving features. Now legislators in the EU have decided to mandate a new intervention enforcing the use of technology in vehicles to help further reduce vehicle accident deaths.

The new legislation, currently pending approval by the European Parliament, will require all new vehicles sold after 2022 - and all pre-existing vehicles by 2024 - to be equipped with technology-driven safety features.

One of these technologies is intelligent speed assistance (ISA), which electronically limits the top speed of a car based on the speed limit in the local area.

The system uses sign recognition video cameras and GPS-linked data to determine the speed limit on the road that is being driven on. It then feeds this data to an on-board computer, which uses this speed limit value as the maximum speed at which the car can travel.

Sensors on the vehicle detect how fast it is moving, and once the top speed for the area has been reached the computer restricts the flow of air and fuel to the engine. This prevents the car from accelerating further even if the driver continues to push on the accelerator, keeping the vehicle within the legal speed limit permitted.

Current systems have an override feature where a hard push on the accelerator will temporarily offset the speed limiter function for moments when immediate speed may be needed, such as overtaking manoeuvres. However, it is unclear what the EU's stance is on overriding the system in its new rules.

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Other technologies that are thought to be included in the new mandatory EU vehicle equipment rules include lane departure warning systems, driver drowsiness and distraction warning systems, an on-board accident data recorder, reversing sensors or a rearview camera, and the ability to install an alcohol interlock connected to a breathalyser immobiliser system to prevent drunk driving,

The introduction of the ISA alone is expected to reduce road collisions by 30 per cent and deaths by 20 per cent.

However, as we shift from manual human driving to what is predicted to be vehicle-led fully autonomous driving in the future, this intermediate stage where humans and technology work hand in hand is likely to cause some conflict for those who believe they should have the right to drive how they see fit, rather than have these decisions made by a computer.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson