by Jason Levine, Executive Director at the Center for Auto Safety
Families across the country suffer more than six million car crashes every year. These crashes endanger Americans from every walk of life, killing more than 36,000 and sending more than 2.5 million people to emergency rooms. Helping consumers survive these crashes is one of the most important roles of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Yet, NHTSA has wasted the last 10 years failing to upgrade one of the best tools it has to help consumers, the New Car Assessment Program (better known as NCAP or the 5 Star Crash Ratings program). Instead, the agency gives 98% of all new cars either four or five stars for their new vehicles, as if they are all participants getting orange slices after a kindergarten soccer game no matter the score. Instead of being horrified at NCAP’s lack of useful comparative crash data, NHTSA has apparently decided press releases alone will protect people in car crashes.
Instead of upgrading one of the United States’ flagship safety programs, NHTSA decided to take a public survey compiling consumer feedback on how new information can be best presented on the label affixed to every new car. Yet amazingly, since 2010, NHTSA has failed to provide any new data to allow consumers to discriminate between modern vehicles and make these labels useful to car buyers. The pretense that changing labels at some undetermined point in the future will somehow make consumers safer is the perfect symbol for the current administration at NHTSA.
What NHTSA should be doing is focusing first on updated testing, specifically adapting improved vehicle crashworthiness ratings; addressing gaps in occupant and pedestrian safety across different vehicle manufacturers and models; redefining injury criteria to account for all body types, ages, seating positions, and available passenger-protection technology; defining the scope of how to test or rate ADAS features; and implementing a system for comparing all of these features. Instead, NHTSA continues to go out of its way not to hurt automakers’ feelings and hands out 4 and 5-star ratings like participation trophies. This stagnation in ratings provides little comparative information for consumers in purchasing vehicles, and no incentive for manufacturers to improve crashworthiness and safety technology.
Thankfully, while NHTSA papers over its problems, some in Congress are acting to try and force change. As part of the Moving Forward Act, an infrastructure bill under consideration this week in the House of Representatives, NCAP will receive a significant renewal for the first time in a decade. The bill, if passed, will among other safety advancements, empower American consumers to make decisive safety choices based on useful, comparative data. A renewed NCAP will protect consumers by updating test procedures and crash dummies, and will emphasize protection for all age groups in all seating positions. For the first time ever, NCAP will assess occupant safety in relation to seat structural integrity for every seating position in the vehicle, in an attempt to eliminate the horrific injuries and deaths that result from seatback failures every year.
Perhaps most important, is that the bill will require NHTSA to once again embrace incentivizing the market to develop advanced technology to save consumer lives, even for those who cannot afford a luxury vehicle. By rating a suite of safety features, including automatic emergency braking, rear automatic braking, and blind-spot warnings, consumers will be empowered to make intelligent, safety-based shopping decisions. Deaths involving pedestrians and bicyclists are at record highs, and accordingly, NCAP will now rate vehicles to protect these and other vulnerable road users. Most exciting, the highest rating for models will be reserved for those vehicles that have safety systems standard across their whole fleet, which is a direct route to safety being standard in all new vehicles.
It has been long established that many of the causes of fatal and serious injuries from car crashes are preventable with advanced safety technology, like intelligent speed assistance, lane departure warnings, and driver monitoring systems. What is needed are standards to ensure these features work, ratings to tell consumers how well they perform, and a government with the courage to implement such standards over the objections of the auto industry. This week clearly demonstrates the two paths car safety can take in the United States when it comes to crash ratings — one can provide upgraded safety data on the latest technology, while the other can repackage an old label and call it a job well done.