The US government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as the five-star safety rating, is getting a major update. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Thursday announced a series of new proposals for the federal program to stem the rise in pedestrian deaths.
For the first time, NHTSA will consider the inclusion of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS – sorry for all the acronyms!) such as automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and lane assist. 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 in the vehicle and ramming it into a wall at high speed. But this system really only assesses the risks to car occupants – and not the danger to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
NHTSA recognizes that this is no longer a sustainable 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,” Steven Cliff, deputy administrator at NHTSA, said in a statement.
The European Union version of the NCAP is different and clearly better. Vehicles only receive a five-star rating if they can demonstrate that they can come to a complete stop – or at least slow down – before colliding with a pedestrian or cyclist. Under President Obama, the NHTSA began the process of revising the NCAP to address the safety of those outside the vehicle; under President Trump, that effort was discontinued.
But President Joe Biden has revived it through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan, signed into law last year. In addition to requiring passenger cars to include collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane assist, it has also directed the Department of Transportation to review NCAP to include these features in its safety rating criteria.
The idea is to assess car safety against a host of new technologies that can stop risky driving before it occurs. As a result, NCAP testing will become more rigorous and vehicles that do not include these features are likely to receive a lower rating. As David Zipper, a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an outspoken advocate for automotive safety, wrote: Bloomberg last year:
From its inception, NCAP has been a consumer education program designed to help Americans understand the relative safety of new cars before making a purchase. Automakers can ignore NCAP if they want to, but federal law requires the ratings on car window stickers to be posted at auto dealerships…
Still, the NHTSA’s new proposals may not go far enough. Like Zipper Notesthe agency says it will “run tests” to determine whether automatic emergency braking for cyclists should be included, as its counterparts in Europe have done.
The new proposals come amid a tragic — but completely predictable — rise in road deaths. Although fewer Americans were on the road during the pandemic, nearly 39,000 people died in 2020 — the highest number of deaths since 2007. And 2021 will be another record year, with nearly 32,000 people dying from January to September. (NHTSA is still collecting data from the last three months of the year.)
These have been particularly bloody years for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2020, the number of cyclist deaths rose by more than 9 percent, the highest number since 1987. The number of fatalities in cities rose by almost 9 percent and the number of pedestrian deaths approached 4 percent, the highest number since 1989.
“There is a crisis on American roads: 3000 people are killed every month, and the number has 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, tend to be the most dangerous. While people who drive SUVs are slightly safer, the number of pedestrians killed by those drivers has skyrocketed by 81 percent 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 carriages make pedestrians more likely to receive fatal blows to the head and torso. Higher distances mean victims are more likely to get trapped under a speeding SUV rather than being pushed onto the hood or sideways.
An overhauled NCAP could penalize vehicles designed in this deadly manner. That could have a huge impact on current SUV and truck design, but only if the NHTSA stands by its stance and adopts these proposals.