The US government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as the Five Star Safety Rating, becomes a major update. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Thursday announced a series of new proposals for the federal program aimed at curbing the spike in pedestrian deaths.
For the first time, NHTSA will consider the inclusion of Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS – sorry for all the acronyms!) features, such as Automatic Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection and Assist lane keeping. These ADAS features, which are quickly becoming standard in most vehicles today, could become essential criteria for a five-star government safety rating.
Traditionally, NHTSA assigns safety ratings to new cars and trucks by placing a few crash test dummies inside the vehicle and ramming them into a wall at high speed. But this system really only assesses the risks posed to automobile occupants – not the danger posed to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
NHTSA recognizes that this is no longer a tenable system. “For the first time ever, NCAP includes technology recommendations not only for drivers and passengers, but also for road users outside the vehicle, such as pedestrians,” said Steven Cliff, Deputy Administrator of the NHTSA, said in a press release.
The European Union’s version of NCAP is different and obviously better. Vehicles only receive a five-star rating if they can demonstrate the ability to come to a complete stop – or at least slow down – before colliding with a pedestrian or cyclist. Under President Obama, NHTSA initiated the process of revise the NCAP to ensure the safety of people outside the vehicle; under President Trump, that effort was abandoned.
But President Joe Biden resurrected it with the bipartisan infrastructure plan, which was signed into law last year. As well as requiring passenger cars to include forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist, it also ordered the Department of Transportation to revise NCAP to include these features in its criteria. safety assessment.
The idea is to assess car safety on a host of new technologies that can stop risky driving behaviors before they even happen. As a result, NCAP testing will become more stringent and vehicles that do not include these features will likely receive a lower rating. Like David Zipper, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a passionate advocate for automotive safety, written in Bloomberg Last year:
From the start, NCAP has been a consumer education program intended to help Americans understand the relative safety of new automobiles before making a purchase. Automakers can ignore NCAP if they wish, but federal law requires that its ratings be placed on vehicle window stickers at auto dealerships…Automakers eagerly seek out the best five-star NCAP ratings, and they brag when they get them.
Still, NHTSA’s new proposals may not go far enough. As Zipper notesthe agency says it will “run tests” to determine whether to include automatic emergency braking for cyclists, as its European counterparts do.
The new proposals come amid a tragic – but entirely predictable – rise in the number of road deaths. Even though fewer Americans were driving on the road during the pandemic, nearly 39,000 people were killed in 2020 – the highest death toll since 2007. And 2021 is shaping up to be another banner year, with nearly 32,000 people dead from January to September. (NHTSA always collects data for the last three months of the year.)
The past few years have been particularly bloody for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2020, cyclist fatalities increased by more than 9%, reaching the highest number since 1987. Fatalities in cities increased by almost 9% and pedestrian fatalities approached 4%, the highest number bred since 1989.
“There is a crisis on America’s roads: 3,000 people die every month, and the numbers have only gotten worse in recent years,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “These significant changes will help save lives on our roads by ensuring consumers have the information they need about the latest safety technologies when purchasing a new vehicle.”
The correlation between vehicle design and pedestrian fatalities is quite clear. The most popular types of vehicles, SUVs and pickup trucks, are generally the most dangerous. While SUV drivers are slightly safer, the number of pedestrians killed by these drivers has skyrocketed 81% over the past decade, according to a report released a few years ago by the Insurance Institute for Highway. Safety.
This is mainly due to the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and taller cars mean that pedestrians are more susceptible to fatal blows to the head and torso. Higher clearances mean victims are more likely to be trapped under a high-speed SUV instead of being pushed over the hood or side.
A revised NCAP could penalize vehicles designed in this deadly manner. This could have a huge impact on current SUV and truck design – but only if NHTSA sticks to its guns and embraces these proposals.