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.