In an effort to provide more relevant and useful vehicle safety ratings for specific audiences, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing two new safety ratings geared toward older drivers and families.

In a posting to its website, the NHTSA said it is considering updating the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and is currently studying a “silver” rating that would assess the safety of vehicles for the older driver, and a “family” rating for how effectively a vehicle protects rear-seat passengers, especially children.

The NCAP system provides vehicle information that enables consumers to compare safety performance and features in new vehicles.

According to the NHTSA announcement, both ratings would be in addition to the existing NCAP five-star safety ratings, which have been in existence since 1978. Overhauling the NCAP system could take between three and four years.

Older drivers

The tidal wave of older drivers, dubbed the “silver tsunami,” is well underway. According to the AARP, 16 percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. today are 65 and older. By 2025, says the AARP, one in five U.S. drivers will be 65 or older. By 2030, there will be 57 million elderly drivers on the road, compared with 37 million today.

In proposing the silver rating for older drivers, the NHTSA said that older vehicle occupants are typically less able than younger occupants to be able to withstand crash forces.

The ultimate goal with the silver rating is for older consumers to provide information that helps them choose vehicles that might be safer for them. NHTSA cited inflatable seat belts and technologies that help prevent low-speed pedal misapplication as two safety features with potential benefits for older vehicle occupants.

Federal crash statistics show that older drivers account for the highest death rate in serious accidents.

But, as an article in The Los Angeles Times pointed out, labeling cars and sport utility vehicles as safe for seniors might prove alienating to the audience it’s intended to benefit. Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA, said that “seniors don’t typically want ‘older people’ cars.”

Nelson remarked that the AAA ran into the dilemma some five years ago when developing its smart car features for older drivers program. “It’s more about seeking the best features for the particular conditions seniors face,” Nelson said, “and they can be very different.”

Older drivers suffering from arthritis may find automatic seat belts, push button start systems and thicker, easy-grip steering wheels beneficial. Shorter drivers may feel that adjustable pedals for the brake and gas and telescoping steering columns to be helpful.

For more information on the AAA’s Smart Features for Older Drivers, click here.

Also check out our earlier article on the ten auto-related safety technologies that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab and the Hartford Insurance Group identified that may be most beneficial for mature drivers.


The NHTSA said that families could use the new rating to compare which cars on the market best protect rear-seat passengers.

“The agency is aware that consumers often wish to know which vehicles are the safest for their children,” said NHTSA. “Thus, providing a crashworthiness rating for vehicles based on the protection they offer both front-seat adult occupants and rear-seat child occupants would support consumer interests.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing the Big Three Detroit automakers, Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp., and others, said that it will work with NHTSA on the proposal.

The NHTSA is also seeking comments on other possible additions to the NCAP, including:

View the proposed rules in the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office here. Consumers who wish to comment online should cite federal Docket No. NHTSA-2012-0180.

(c) 2013, High Gear Media.