Time for Tougher Car Safety Ratings

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 11, 2015

Earlier this week, the daughter of a friend of mine—a young arts administrator, a woman with a bright future—was killed in a senseless accident in New York City when a huge SUV jumped a Brooklyn curb and mowed her down.
 
And now comes the news that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is planning much-needed reforms to its safety ratings. The move would replace the ungainly one-rating-fits-all system with a more diverse scorecard that includes points for protecting pedestrians, and for including safety tech, such as forward collision warnings and lane departure cautions. The changes come too late to save my friend’s daughter, but not too late to save countless future victims.

We can't stop people from getting into accidents, but we can increase their survival rate. (Matt Lemmon/Flickr)Europe has long insisted on stringent pedestrian protections, including bumper heights that minimize harm to people struck by cars, and hoods that deform to reduce impact injuries. American SUVs, with their big, high bumpers, are more likely to kill the people hit by them. 
 
The reforms to the safety requirements include a new five-star rating for cars and trucks that are best for pedestrian impacts. It also includes better, more humanlike crash test dummies (including THOR, “the most advanced, human-like dummy in the world”). Speaking of dummies, there will be a new full frontal crash test with a “fifth percentile” female dummy.
 
What’s a fifth percentile female? According to this, it’s a scaled-down H115F that mimics a woman’s average proportions—and is much better able to predict crash performance. A NHTSA paper says a review of 1995 to 2001 data indicates “that over 22 percent of female occupants involved in tow-away accidents are 62 inches in stature or less, and over 2.5 percent of these suffer serious and fatal injuries.”
 
Cars will also be subjected to a new front angled test, because vehicles often crash that way with very serious results—despite seat belts and airbags.

Pedestrians and cyclists are incredibly vulnerable on city streets. (Gato-Gato-Gato/Flickr)Not surprisingly, Consumer Reports likes NHTSA’s new direction. The agency came under heavy fire after a recent New York Times report revealed that nearly all cars tested were getting four- or five-star ratings, and that such ratings aren’t necessarily a guarantee. For instance, six of eight Chevrolets with five-star ratings were later recalled for safety reasons, “some more than once,” the Times said.
 
Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, said, “This is a big step forward to  make these ratings as useful and relevant as possible to consumers shopping for a new vehicle. For the first time, NHTSA is fully incorporating crash-avoidance technology into its ratings. That means you’ll know not only how well the vehicle protects you in a crash, but also how well it helps you avoid a crash before it happens.”
 
Right now I’m driving a 2016 Honda Accord that incorporates a ton of that kind of technology. If I stray out of my lane—possibly because I’m nodding off—the Accord warns me with dash lights and a gentle tug on the steering wheel.
 
It would be nice if it were standard across all model lines, but every 2016 Accord can now be equipped with a package called Honda Sensing that includes a suite of safety tech—collision mitigation braking (CMBS) with forward collision warning (my car has this, and it’s quite useful), road departure mitigation with lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise. The Sensing package is standard on Touring models. 
 
What is standard on all Accords is a rear-view camera and a right-side mirror that becomes a video screen when you’re making right turns. The latter is startling at first, but you soon come to rely on it. In a further nod to consumer safety, rear-view cameras will be required on all cars by 2018. The phase-in begins next year.
 
One huge benefit of the new regulations is that, by recognizing the value of electronic aids, they’ll encourage automakers to make them standard on all cars—as the rear-view cameras will be. People who buy entry-level cars shouldn’t be less safe than those able to pay for luxury. Will the cost of new cars go up as a result? Yes, a bit, but it seems a price worth paying.
 
Here's a closer look at Honda's collision mitigation braking system:


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