By Mike Antich
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced it will postpone implementation of its revised five-star safety rating program on 2010 model-year vehicles. The new ratings will instead be applied to 2011 model-year vehicles, allowing OEMs another year to prepare for what NHTSA considers to be significant changes in its rating program.
NHTSA's testing and safety rating criteria for frontal and side crashes, as well as rollover resistance, have not been substantially revised since the program's inception 30 years ago. As a result, NHTSA believed the crash standards were overdue for a revision. Recognizing that nine out of 10 vehicles routinely score either four or five stars, NHTSA wants to increase the standards for front- and side-impacts, along with more stringent rollover testing.
Other factors in the decision to revise the testing and safety criteria was the belief by some that testing measures were antiquated and the assertion that automakers specifically engineered vehicles to perform well on the current tests. The new standards will require NHTSA to update its crash dummies and injury criteria. In addition, it will expand the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) ratings to identify vehicles with crash avoidance features such as electronic stability control, lane departure, and forward collision warning systems.
History of NCAP
NHTSA established NCAP in response to Title II of the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972. Beginning with the 1979 model-year, NCAP began rating passenger vehicles for frontal impact safety. Ratings for side-impact were added with the 1997 model-year and for rollover resistance with the 2001 model-year. None of the testing or safety rating criteria for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover resistance has been substantially revised since they were first established three decades ago.
The NCAP includes three types of tests – front-impact, side-impact, and rollover – and assigns ratings on a one-to-five-star scale based on the percentage chance of serious injury, with five stars the best rating and one star the worst.
With 250 or so new vehicles on the market every year, NHTSA cannot test all models. Every year, the agency selects vehicles for testing based on those new models predicted to have high sales volume, those redesigned with structural changes, and those with improved safety equipment. This system allows NHTSA to provide star-rating results that best represent what is actually being purchased in the market. Ratings for vehicles that haven't significantly changed are carried over year to year. Altogether, NHTSA tests 80-100 new vehicles annually. It aims to rate 85 percent of the new vehicles sold each year. Those models with small sales volumes may not be selected for testing. Even though a vehicle may not have been NCAP-rated, all vehicles sold in the U.S. are certified by manufacturers as complying with all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Decision Generating Some Controversy
NHTSA critics have contended for some time that the "technological saturation point" for crash protection is getting closer, and that driver behavior needs to be addressed to decrease injuries.
Others contend NHTSA tests are redundant to European NCAP tests. Requiring two tests makes it difficult for OEMs, such as GM and Ford, to import their European high fuel-economy models to the U.S. In an interview with WardsAuto.com, GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz stated his desire for at least a three-year suspension of U.S. front- and side-impact crash testing standards. Lutz was quoted by WardsAuto.com as saying, "In Europe, the crash-test procedures are different than in the U.S., so the tests are different. If our government says cars that meet crash tests in other countries are good enough to be sold here, we would have more high-mileage, small-car flexibility." Lutz advocates giving OEMs the ability to legally sell vehicles in the U.S. that have passed Euro NCAP safety standards, but not NHTSA NCAP standards.
Currently, the U.S. and Japan have their own standards, while Europe and Australia use the European NCAP standard. The U.S. standard involves assessment of the forces on a crash dummy after a frontal crash into a concrete barrier at 35 miles per hour. A similar test for side-impacts sends a 3,015-lb. sled at a 63-degree angle into the side of a stationary vehicle at 38.5 mph. In Europe, the Euro NCAP standards differ – the full frontal impact speed is 40 mph rather than 35, and the side-impact sled weighs less (2,090 lbs.) and hits a vehicle at 90 degrees rather than 63 degrees. In addition, the Euro NCAP standard includes an offset frontal impact into a deformable barrier.
Cars Aren't Less Safe, Just Rated Differently
The new NHTSA overall safety score combines the star ratings from the front-impact, side-impact, and rollover tests. Because individual ratings in each test will be weighted differently, poor performance in one test could be partially masked by good performance in others. The important point is that simply because a vehicle's NCAP ratings may change in 2011-MY, it doesn't mean that it is less safe. It simply means the testing criteria have changed.
Let me know what you think.