Thursday, July 10, 2008

NHTSA Improves Crash-Test Program For 2010

By Chris Haak


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced this week that it is significantly changing the way that it crash-tests new vehicles and reports on those results to consumers. This is the first major change in the crash-test regime since the star system was developed in 1979.

One motivator behind the NHTSA's decision to revamp the rating system is that 96% of all new cars sold today receive four or five star safety ratings. In 1979, when the star rating system was introduced, only about 30% of all new vehicles were rated at four or five stars. Not only have cars literally become much safer places to be in the event of a collision, but manufacturers have become experts at building cars that are able to ace the tests, even if other crash tests such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) 40 mile per hour offset barrier test is much tougher to pass than the government-mandated tests. Basically, acing the government's tests did not necessarily mean that you were driving a car that would do the best job of protecting its occupants in different types of crashes.

The new crash test program, which takes effect for the 2010 model year, will add a side impact crash into a pole which is intended to simulate wrapping a car around a tree, as well as additional front end tests and using a small female dummy for some tests, since accident results have shown that females of small stature are most at risk of current restraint system designs not adequately protecting them. Additionally, the new system will provide concise information to consumers about the various safety technologies included in a given vehicle, such as stability control, lane departure warning systems, etc.

Although the tests themselves are more comprehensive and therefore more difficult to master for automobile manufacturers, they will provide consumers with a single overall star rating rather than driver, passenger, driver side impact, passenger side impact, and rollover as the current ratings illustrate (and consumers have found to be confusing).

While saving lives is obviously an admirable goal, it's also important to note that more rigorous safety standards also will likely further increase the weight of new vehicles, increase the cost, or both. Increasing the weight would then, of course, run contrary to the desire of all manufacturers to squeeze as much fuel economy out of their lineups to meet increasing CAFE standards over the next few years. Everything in automotive engineering is a balancing act, so this will require additional efforts and creativity on the part of everyone responsible for engineering new vehicles and making them both crash-worthy and fuel efficient.

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