New Crash-Test Dummies in U.S. Auto Ratings Overhaul

Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg
  • NHSTA to add crash-avoidance technology, new pedestrian risk
  • New tougher frontal crash test also part of proposal

U.S. safety regulators proposed a remake of the five-star crash-test ratings system for automobiles to take into account new technology -- and new test dummies.

The  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ratings, first issued in 1978, have proven influential with consumers and are often cited by carmakers in advertisements.

NHTSA now plans to add a test to simulate a frontal collision from an angle, give an automaker credit for the use of advanced crash-avoidance technology and designs to reduce pedestrian accidents. The agency will also issue ratings with half-star increments and adopt the use of high-tech crash-test dummies that can more accurately measure potential injuries in car crashes.

“This is market-changing stuff that will impact safety for the good,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose agency oversees NHTSA, told reporters in announcing the proposal. “We make no apologies for raising the bar.”

Death Toll

The proposal comes as highway fatalities are on the rise. The death toll on U.S. highways rose 8.1 percent in the first half of 2015 as low fuel prices contributed to a jump in miles driven by Americans. The preliminary figures represent a “troubling departure” from a general downward trend over the past decade, the  NHTSA said in a report last month. In 2014, the fatality rate hit an all-time low.

The New Car Assessment Program has been around since the 1970s, when the regulator graded how well cars performed in a frontal crash test on a one-to-five star scale. Over the years, NHTSA has added a side-impact test and a rollover stability rating. Last year, the agency added advanced braking systems to the ratings. The angled frontal-crash test would simulate some of the deadliest collisions on U.S. highways.

The agency will update the rating system as new technologies emerge, said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator.

“Our goal has always been to set the global standard for vehicle safety,” said Rosekind, adding that other nations adopted similar ratings and automakers responded with better designs. “The addition of of crash-avoidance technology to the five-star ratings reflects the state of the art.”

Implemented in 2019

The current ratings will remain on NHTSA’s website and automakers have time to adjust because the new system won’t go into effect until 2019, Rosekind said. Cars using all the safety technology currently available, however, would only be able to achieve about 3 1/2 stars under the tougher scale, he said. Most models today get four to five stars without including all the safety measures.

The agency will ask industry and safety groups to comment on the proposed changes to the safety ratings system over the next 60 days and plans to issue final rules by the end of 2016.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and others, said it would provide “constructive comments” on the proposal but applauded the agency’s acceptance of industry-pioneered technology.

“The more that consumers hear about our advanced safety technology and its potential benefits, the more likely they will choose that technology when car shopping,” Wade Newton, the group’s spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Star Scale

NHTSA said its new crash test dummies, including one known as THOR, or the Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint, will provide improved data on the effects of a crash by more closely mimicking a human body. THOR’s spine is flexible and its neck bends and twists more like a human, for example.

The agency also maintains a list of recommended auto-safety technologies, such as back-up cameras and warning systems that alert a driver when their vehicle has moved out of its lane.

“We are shamelessly moving the goalposts ever closer to a time when folks don’t just worry about protecting themselves in a crash,” Foxx said. “We are moving toward preventing crashes altogether.”

Carmaker Incentives

The upgrades will make a critical difference in safety, said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports. It will be the first time safety ratings reflect accident avoidance tools and that will be a powerful incentive for automakers to adopt them in new models.

“This is a big step forward to make these ratings as useful and relevant as possible to consumers shopping for a new vehicle,” Fisher said.

The Association of Global Automakers, which represents companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., urged the agency to use a measured approach before making significant changes to the star ratings.

Data Driven

“Global Automakers hopes that changes made to NCAP are done through a thoughtful, data-driven process that leads to real world safety improvements, and provides consumers with clear and accurate information to enable more educated buying decisions,” the Washington-based trade group said in an e-mailed statement.

Changes to NHTSA’s crash tests are overdue, said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group.

“Today’s announcement shows that NHTSA is willing to make significant changes to keep NCAP relevant and a reliable source of critical information for consumers,” Gillan said.

Members of Congress also welcomed the agency’s announcement, coming soon after a mandate to include crash-avoidance technologies was included in the highway construction bill, the FAST Act, passed last week.

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who worked on the provision with Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said incorporating features like collision warnings and automatic emergency braking will give consumers a better idea of the overall safety when shopping for a new car.

“Consumers trust auto window-sticker safety ratings when they compare vehicles,” Markey said. “NHTSA gets a gold star for taking this important step."

(Corrects state of U.S. senator in second-to-last paragraph.)
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