NHTSA Announces Proposed Changes to 5-Star Safety Rating System

NHTSA Announces Proposed Changes to 5-Star Safety Rating System
Image: Pixabay
December 11, 2015

About 35 years after the federal government began publishing crash test data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced this week high-tech changes to its 5-Star Safety Ratings system.

The changes will improve the ratings systems by adding an additional crash test, using new and more human-like crash test dummies, rating crash-avoidance advance technologies, and assessing pedestrian protection.

The 5-Star Safety Ratings, also known as the New Car Assessment Program, crash-tests new vehicles every year and currently rates them on how well they protect occupants in frontal, side and rollover crashes. Results from these tests are compiled into a rating of 1 to 5 stars, with more stars indicating a safer car. The vehicle safety ratings appear on window stickers of new cars, and searchable ratings are available on NHTSA's Safercar.gov website. The current program also includes a checklist of recommended advanced technology features such as rear-visibility cameras, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning.

In the early 80's, the results were published by NHTSA in The Car Book, but carmakers fought hard against the crash test program and were vehemently opposed to publishing crash test results. The Raegan Administration canceled further publication of The Car Book and its results, but the Center for Auto Safety kept the publication alive for the past three decades.

Eventually, carmakers realized that safety sells and began designing cars that would perform better in safety tests. Often, less-than-stellar ratings on crash tests run by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) will cause automakers to make improvements in order to perform better on tests, benefitting both the company and car buyers.

While the IIHS continues to revamp and improve its crash test program, NHTSA has been a bit slower to change. A release from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says that the vast majority of new vehicles all get 5-star ratings making it impossible for car buyers to select the safest cars.

"The good news is that this new program will not only address the problem car buyers have in selecting the safest of the new cars, but will greatly expand the factors that go into rating a car for safety," CFA public affairs director Jack Gillis said in a statement. Gillis was on the team that first published The Car Book and had a hand in its continued publication.

After reviewing NHTSA's proposal, Gillis made some observations:

  • With improved dummies, the ability of the car to protect the occupant will be more precisely measured which will put enormous pressure on the manufacturers to fine-tune their vehicles for safety.
  • By factoring in critically important crash avoidance technology, and rating that technology for effectiveness, the program will significantly reduce the chances of highly rated cars getting into a life threatening accident.
  • Changing the direction of the crash test to an oblique angle will more accurately represent a typical accident situation as well as further test the vehicle's ability to protect the occupant.
  • Rating the vehicle's ability to avoid injuries incurred by pedestrians will significantly reduce the nearly 5,000 pedestrian deaths each year.

Unfortunately, the new program won't be in effect until the 2019 model year.

NHTSA will collect public comments for the next 60 days and issue a final decision noticed by the end of 2016.