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Auto safety advocates: Government needs to update crash-test rating system

Critics say system has no comparative value today, especially amid latest technology

By
Published: September 4, 2019, 6:00am
4 Photos
Crashworthiness test for government safety rating system U.S. Department of Transportation/NHTSA photo
Crashworthiness test for government safety rating system U.S. Department of Transportation/NHTSA photo Photo Gallery

Grade inflation in school makes it difficult to distinguish who is actually achieving in the classroom. The federal government’s vehicle safety rating system suffers the same problem.

Today, 98 percent of all vehicles tested receive four or five stars for crashworthiness. Consumer advocates and safety experts say it’s time to raise the bar for the New Car Assessment Program, which hasn’t been updated in nearly 10 years.

“There is no comparative value in the system anymore. It’s the equivalent of handing out candy at Halloween: Everybody gets some,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety based in Washington, D.C.

The rating system was created 40 years ago as a tool to help car buyers make informed purchasing decisions and encourage automakers to exceed minimum safety standards. The program, managed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rates cars and light-duty trucks on a scale from one to five stars for performance in crash and rollover tests. It’s a market-based approach — automakers don’t want bad publicity — that lets buyers quickly compare the safety of new vehicles. The score is printed on the window sales sticker, and more details can be found on NHTSA’s website.

By all accounts, the program has been successful in getting manufacturers to offer safer vehicles and incorporate enhanced safety features. But critics argue that it has not kept pace with advances in safety technology. Features such as automatic emergency braking and forward collision and lane departure warnings are not included in the ratings. As a result, people are buying cars based on a decade-old measuring system and manufacturers aren’t given an incentive to reach further for safety.

Over the years, NHTSA made tests more stringent, added new evaluation criteria and improved how results were shared with consumers. The agency appeared close to updating the rating system in 2016, but it appeared to halt the effort when the Trump administration took power.

In an email response to questions, NHTSA said that “over the years, numerous improvements have been initiated to the program. Currently, NHTSA is considering various approaches to enhancing NCAP so that it will continue to provide useful comparative vehicle safety information.’’

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a research and advocacy group in Rehoboth, Mass., said “the … program would be better served if there were a regular evaluation to it every few years.”

Diminishing value

When grades artificially skew higher in school because of easy assignments and lenient grading, students are typically less motivated to work hard and appear more high-achieving, while teachers look more effective than they are.

The same characteristics apply to automakers, who years ago figured out how to achieve a good safety score and simply apply the same template for each new model.

NHTSA spent nearly two years during the Obama administration trying to refine the program so that only truly exceptional vehicles received 4- and 5-star ratings. The proposal would have strengthened criteria for measuring crashworthiness, and added safety ratings for new crash avoidance and pedestrian protection features.

But the agency ran out of time getting approvals before the Trump administration took office and “couldn’t quite get it over the finish line,” Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator at the time, told FairWarning.

Under President Donald Trump, NHTSA shelved its proposal. In September 2018, it held a public meeting to gather stakeholder input but the notice signaled little interest in following the Obama-era recommendations. It mostly sided with industry concerns raised in 2015 over program and technology costs, and whether there was sufficient data showing any changes would provide meaningful benefits.

Nearly a year later, NHTSA has remained silent about next steps.

The agency has been widely attacked as a weak regulator. At a hearing in May, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, criticized NHTSA for letting the rating system stagnate.

“The very integrity and value of the 5-Star Safety Rating is undermined if the certification does not draw meaningful distinctions between the safety of different vehicles. It is also not meaningful if this safety certification fails to include crucial safety technologies already deployed on automobiles,” such as forward collision warning, lane departure warning and blind spot detection, he said.

Automaker indifference

Automakers generally have been lukewarm about the rating system because it challenges them to compete on the basis of an independent, unbiased safety assessment. Manufacturers that provide advanced safety features currently don’t receive any benefit in the rating system compared with rivals who withhold such systems from consumers.

Companies that are out front developing technology are happy to boast about it, but the rest are nervous about any change, according to Rosekind and Will Wallace, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. And many prefer maintaining NHTSA’s current system of recommending certain crash avoidance technologies to consumers rather than testing and rating them.

A handful of manufacturers, notably Honda Motor Co., voiced general support for significant upgrades during the Obama administration, but most companies seem content with the status quo, according to official comments submitted by trade associations and individual firms.

The Association of Global Automakers, representing foreign brands in the U.S., last year offered qualified support for NHTSA’s earlier proposal, while the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group for a dozen vehicle makers, said the recommendations were not ready to implement.

“It is important that any new additions to [the rating system] significantly increase real-world safety. If not, they will only increase vehicle cost without any commensurate real-world safety benefit,” the Alliance said in comments filed with NHTSA. The program “should avoid forcing differentiation for differentiation’s sake.”

Auto Alliance spokesman Wade Newton said the group agreed with NHTSA’s withdrawal of the 2016 proposed updates “since they lacked valid test procedures” and adequate proof of benefits.

The government affairs offices of Honda Motor Co., Toyota North America, Mazda USA, General Motors and Hyundai Motor Co. either did not respond to requests for comment or referred questions to the two trade groups. Hyundai vehicles already perform at higher standards in third-party safety evaluations, spokeswoman Laura Bonavita added.

No urgency

The ratings system isn’t challenging enough for car shoppers to trust right now, Wallace said.

“When almost every car gets a four or five-star rating, it makes it almost impossible for consumers to tell which vehicles actually provide a better-than-average level of safety, or a lower level of safety,” he said. “And that’s tremendously concerning to us, because this is a program that has tremendous power when it is at its best.

“It was so successful it was emulated around the world,” but now “has been allowed to languish. And that is such a shame, not only for consumers, but for everyone on our roads.”

Wallace blamed leadership at NHTSA and its parent, the Department of Transportation, for not pursuing upgrades, noting that the staff dedicated a great deal of time developing an extensive proposal. And, he suggested, there are signs of a possible split among senior NHTSA officials about the value of the star ratings in an era when the private sector, through organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Consumer Reports, already rate vehicles for safety.

Those groups can supplement NHTSA’s work, but should not be a substitute for comprehensive, impartial evaluation conducted by the government, Wallace stressed.

Although it’s normal for a new administration to take a second look at existing policies, Levine said the Trump team’s new request for feedback “seems like a cynical ploy to ensure the process is bogged down in regulatory red tape for the purpose of locking things in place or to make sure nothing happens too quickly.”


FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues, produced this story.

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