By Jordan Weissmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
The U.S. Transportation Department announced the first major update to its vehicle safety rating program in seven years yesterday, drawing mixed reactions from advocates who hoped the government would go further in revamping the way it tests automobiles, trucks and sport-utility vehicles.
Beginning with the 2010 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will change the way it measures frontal crash tests by placing female dummies in passenger seats and taking injury data from new parts of the body, including the legs and neck. It will run a new side-pole test as well, meant to mimic collisions in which a vehicle wraps around a tree.
The female dummies, making their debut in the safety rating program after years of being used in basic compliance testing, are 4 feet 8 inches tall and weigh 108 pounds, allowing them to pull double duty as large children in crash tests. Industry and consumer groups supported adding the dummies because some data suggest that smaller women may be more prone to serious injuries when riding in the right front passenger seat, NHTSA said.
Also for the first time, vehicles will get an overall safety rating, meant to make it easier for consumers to compare vehicles. Currently, NHTSA offers only individual ratings for frontal, side-impact and rollover tests, all of which will still be available. The new number will combine all crash data, weighting it according to the frequency and deadliness of each type of accident.
"We can say that cars today are much safer than they were 30 years ago. And we have the government safety ratings system in part to thank for that," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said at a morning news conference. "The new ratings will improve passenger safety with challenging new tests and by looking at additional and improved injury data."
The government added rollover testing to its grading formula in 2001 in the wake of highly publicized SUV crashes. The changes come after years of pushing by consumer groups and industry watchers who thought that NHTSA's ratings were becoming obsolete as a way to inform consumers and spur automakers to improve safety.
In 2005, the Government Accountability Office said the federal safety-rating system would become irrelevant without new, tougher testing.
When the crash-testing program started in 1979, many cars earned only one- or two-star ratings out of a possible five. But as automakers tailored their designs to meet the government's standards, the gap between vehicles closed. Four- and five-star ratings are now the norm, and although most groups agree that that indicates progress in vehicle safety, it also makes it difficult for consumers to tell which vehicles are actually safest.
If the government's new standards are stringent enough, they should make it more difficult for carmakers to earn five stars, and consumers could see variation in safety ratings.
The Transportation Department said consumer groups and car manufacturers were heavily involved in hammering out the new testing procedures. But car safety groups responded to yesterday's news with only moderate enthusiasm. Though the changes generally point in the right direction, they said, the government could have done more.
"What we have here is we've got a lot of little changes to the new-car assessment program, but I don't think there's any kind of paradigm shift in terms of a fundamental change that would drive designers in new directions," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which issues its own crash safety ratings for consumers.
"In an ideal world, I would like to have seen them propose a different frontal crash test, one that took into account running head-on into a tree or a pole or one with slight overlap," or glancing frontal crash, he said. "That would be a paradigm shift. That would mean the government was rating a different kind of crash."
The government is accompanying its new ratings for each car model with a list of technical safety features, such as electronic stability control and forward-collision warning systems. It is the first time these technologies will get the Transportation Department's seal of approval, but the agency will not rate their performance on individual vehicles.
Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group of the major automakers, said he expects that the new testing process would inevitably add some new costs to research and development for car companies. But he added that they are happy to see voluntary initiatives, such as electronic stability control, highlighted in the new guidelines.
"I think that safety is a selling issue these days. And it's something that consumers are looking for and asking for," Newton said. "I see [the new tests] as a challenge, but I see it as one of many challenges. I see it as a bigger challenge that the market itself is demanding safety enhancement and refinement."