March 17, 2007


Should the government modify and strengthen the ratings and tests used in its New Car Assessment Program system, and if so, by how much? NHTSA’s announced intention to make changes in the vehicle-by-vehicle safety information system (see January 2007 Current Development archive) has drawn comments and suggestions from a wide range of sources, many of them expressed at an agency one-day hearing on the subject on March 7. A NHTSA press release said the agency will accept comments on the matter until April 10.

Even before the hearing a leading newspaper had criticized the plan for failures. In an editorial, the New York Times called the effort “long overdue but still likely to fall short of what’s needed. In far too many cases, the tests are weaker than they should be and fail to address current kinds of accidents, like what happens when one of today’s larger vehicles collides with a smaller one.” Among other failings, the Times editorial said, “the tests have not kept pace with the times as more sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickups have taken to the roads… For everyone’s safety, consumer advocates and vehicle insurers should press hard for the strongest possible tests and standards.”

At the hearing, leading consumer advocacy groups strongly urged NHTSA to considerably toughen the NCAP program. In an extensive article about the hearing, the Detroit News said that automakers supported an approach which would replace the present system – five star rankings in three vehicle safety categories – with a single ranking. But the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts its own crash test and rating program “offered harsh criticism of NHTSA's proposal, calling it ‘timid.’

“He noted that as far back as 1994, NHTSA had held a public hearing about reforming its new car assessment program and had done little. He also said NHTSA has been delinquent in doing research, noting that it still isn't considering roof strength in assessing new cars.” He also said NHTSA “should not focus all of its efforts on crash-avoidance technologies -- like electronic stability control -- at the expense of insuring that vehicles were crash-worthy; that in the event of the crash, safety systems will protect them.”

A major problem with the program is that nearly all vehicles pass current tests, the Detroit News pointed out. “Eight-seven percent of 2006 vehicles received four or five stars (out of five possible) for side impact crashes, and 95 percent earned top marks for frontal crashes.”

Along with IIHS, Public Citizen was critical of the NHTSA approach for its weaknesses. In her testimony at the hearing, the group’s president praised NHTSA’s intent and the NCAP program in general, but added:

That “the agency has omitted many critical issues necessary for NCAP to be adequately updated. These critical issues include rating vehicles for rear occupant protection, improving the current test used for rating rollover protection, adding an aggressivity rating system, rating child safety restraints, creating a pedestrian rating, rating vehicle performance in rear-impact crashes, and adding an offset frontal crash test rating. I also urge the agency to test and rate both front and rear occupant seating positions in a vehicle through NCAP, which would provide consumers with critical information about vehicle safety that is currently not available. Furthermore, the agency should reform its scoring system from stars to letter grades to assist in consumer understanding of the rating system.”

The Center for Auto Safety responded to the NHTSA approach by calling not only for a tougher ratings system but also for a substantially broadened, more comprehensive consumer information program. Among other things, it criticized the agency’s current failure to post on its website Technical Service Bulletins and Service Campaigns which car companies issue to dealers for correction of vehicle flaws, its failure to require that new cars be labeled at point of sale with data about their safety performance, and its lack of a consumer information test and rating for vehicle roof crush in rollovers, and its failure to dependability make available information about its potential defect investigations on its website.

“If NHTSA wants to expand its consumer information program to adequately cover Defect Investigations which result in recalls or which are closed because the manufacturer has issued a TSB or a Service Campaign, then the agency must publish TSBs and Service Campaign on its website arranged by make and model exactly in the same make and model terminology as used in the NCAP crash ratings,” it said.

Posted by MVHAP at March 17, 2007 02:24 PM