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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Safety Officials Call For More Car Crash Tests
Safety officials recently called on the government's crash-test program to take new collision avoidance technologies into consideration and make the results more meaningful to new car buyers.
A day-long hearing with automakers, suppliers and safety advocates was held by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to talk about changes to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which grades new vehicles on a scale from one to five stars.
The program was implemented in 1979, and traffic safety officials said it has helped speed the installation of safety technologies into new autos. But they are calling for improvements to frontal, side-impact and rollover testing, while evaluating up-and-coming technologies such as electronic stability control, which is used to prevent rollovers, brake assist systems, and lane departure warnings.
"We do know the program works and it's clear that safety sells," NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason said. "Vehicle design and safety improvements are not static concepts and so NCAP should not be, either."
Vehicle manufacturers and suppliers said the changes should mirror the benefits of electronic stability control, which the government has propositioned to be required on all new vehicles beginning in 2012.
"There are tremendous opportunities to help drivers avoid the crash in the first place," said the vice president of safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Robert Strassburger.
According to government predictions, stability control could prevent thousands of vehicle deaths each year if the technology is fully deployed into the fleet. Vehicle manufacturers said it is imperative that the new system helps consumers learn which systems provide the highest level of safety. This information can help families make educated decisions on which vehicle to buy as well as possible savings on auto insurance for owning a car in the highest possible safety category.
"Right now everyone's a little uncertain on which ones work best," commented Chuck Thomas, an automotive safety manager with Honda Motor Co.
According to safety advocates, it is difficult for consumers to compare the safety value of similar vehicles because most vehicles earn four or five stars on the tests.
For example, in 1979, nearly half the new vehicles earned one or two stars, but none of the 2007 model vehicles earned new cars those two lowest ratings. Nearly 95 percent of current vehicles earned four or five stars.
Jack Gillis of the Consumer Federation of America said the grading system suffered from "star-flation."
"The star system today does little to differentiate vehicles," he observed.
The NHTSA is also considering improvements to its front-end test to rate vehicles on their ability to prevent upper leg injuries and on the side test to show how side air bags protect the driver's head.
Safety groups are calling on the government to test child restraint systems to see how they perform in crashes. At present, the child seats are rated by NHTSA on how easy they are to use, but advocates said they should be modeled on similar programs in Japan and Europe that offer child seat safety ratings.
"America's children deserve the same protection as European children," said Alabama-based safety engineer Martha Bidez.
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