How the Entire U.S. Crash Safety Rating Is About to Change

Source: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Source: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Automotive News has reported that federal regulators this week proposed an overhaul of the government’s five-star vehicle safety rating system. Already labeled as “stringent” in many regards, this revision has been proposed in order to add additional testing and rankings for accident avoidance technologies, pedestrian protection capabilities, and demands that a new comprehensive test for measuring performance in a frontal offset crash be implemented. If approved, this new rating program would finally allow vehicles to be scored in half-star increments, and would first be put into effect with vehicles that are categorized under a 2019 model year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it plans to collect public comments and issue a final decision by the end of 2016 in regards to whether it will proceed with the implementation of these amendments.

“NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings have set the bar on safety since it began in 1978, and today we are raising that bar,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “The changes provide more and better information to new-vehicle shoppers that will help accelerate the technology innovations that save lives.”

Intended as a double-sided swing at improving vehicle safety, these changes would offer a chance for car buyers to learn how well a particular system works while encouraging automakers to outfit all of their vehicles with standard equipment like automatic braking, blind-spot detection, lane-departure sensors, and pedestrian avoidance. Naturally, there would need to be a basic level of performance from which the NHTSA would use as a touchstone for assessing minimum capabilities, and from there they would rank vehicles accordingly. If passed, partial credit will only be appointed to vehicles that offer avoidance technologies as an optional safety upgrade, thus making it tougher for automakers to cut corners in regards to those safety scores consumers hold so dear.

The last time we saw the NHTSA this fired-up about a reformation, the words “seatbelt” and “mandatory equipment” were being thrown around a lot, and everyone knows how that turned out. But this isn’t just some afternoon undertaking designed to make our roadways a safer place: This is a full-blown shift toward autonomous safety, where drivers and those around them stand to receive an increased level of protection at any speed. Naturally, over at The Cheat Sheet we’re all for improved safety standards, but what is the cost associated with this referendum?

Ford Demonstrates Its Latest Crash Test Technology
Source: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

“We’re pleased that NHTSA sees new safety technologies pioneered by automakers are performing well in the real world and should be featured in their consumer education program,” says the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in a written statement, a panel that includes major American, Asian, and German automakers. “Crash-avoidance technologies can be life-saving innovations that we’re eager to see consumers embrace. Looking ahead, a significant portion of future highway safety gains will likely come from these advanced technologies.”

At the end of the day, getting into a pissing competition with the American government over the safety of its citizens is not the most advisable move. But what of the automakers that aren’t members of this alliance? The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers does not speak for Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, or Honda, so while all of these outsiders are most likely supportive of this measure, it will be interesting to see their take on all these developments as this reformation comes to fruition.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

All of this comes on the heels of one of the worst years for highway fatalities, which had until recently been on a steep decline for almost a decade. According to Automotive News, “traffic deaths rose 8.1% in the first half of 2015,” a jump that many attribute to low petrol prices and people wanting to drive more while gas is at ridiculously low prices. This makes sense: More people on the roads naturally increases the threshold of risk for potentially fatal errors. But distracted driving is at an all-time high, as drivers are turning toward on-board infotainment systems and creating a catch-22 for the automakers that feel pressure to keep up with the times while remaining true to passenger safety simultaneously.

On the forefront of this overhaul is a proposed change to frontal oblique crash testing, a plan designed to simulate a corner crash that continues to be responsible for a staggering number of deaths and serious injuries while behind the wheel. This may be the toughest pill of all for automakers to swallow, and many manufacturers have already struggled with earning top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in a similar test.

A few of the other proposed rehabs include full frontal crash tests using a “fifth percentile female dummy to better measure safety of rear-seat passengers,” the use of more human-like dummies to better gauge chest, abdomen, lower spine, and brain injuries, and an updated vehicle rollover resistance examination. The NHTSA also has proposals in place to mandate a five-star rating system in order to gauge a vehicle’s ability to detect the presence and then avoid pedestrians via the use of automatic emergency braking systems. Another rating scale for crash avoidance is also being proposed, which includes the critiquing of forward collision warnings and accident mitigation, and the performance levels found in semiautomatic headlight beams. All of this means that the future looks bright for drivers, we just have to hope that automakers have enough time to outfit all of their vehicles with all-star safety systems.

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