Making Cars Safer

How do you change behavior? By giving an incentive to change. And that’s exactly what the National Highway Traffic Administration has done over the past 32 years with its New Car Assessment (NCAP) Program.

The goal of the program is twofold: First, it helps consumers make informed decisions about safety when purchasing a new car. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it gives auto manufacturers an incentive to improve their cars’ safety. All automobiles sold in the U.S. must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, but NCAP has always given manufacturers an extra carrot to exceed those standards. As NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told us, “More stars equal safer cars.”

For the 2011 model year, NHTSA has changed NCAP requirements to make them even more stringent and consumer friendly. The new ratings for 2011 models and beyond include more rigorous tests based on advanced safety technology. The new system will help consumers choose to buy or lease safer cars by making it easier to compare the safety among various models.

Upgraded Ratings

For the new model year, the familiar five-star crash test ratings score will be improved and expanded. New criteria for the crash test ratings system include a new side pole crash test, the use of different-sized test dummies (enabling the collection of more crash data), and a recognition of new high-tech crash avoidance features, such as Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), and Forward Collision Warning (FCW).

Perhaps the biggest consumer benefit is the introduction of a single, easy-to-understand Overall Ratings Score. The score combines the results of head-on crash tests, side crash tests and rollover tests. It then compares those results to the average risk of injury and rollover potential of other cars, giving the buyer a good all-around look at the comparative safety of the vehicle.

Dummies Get Smarter

Although the addition of an all-new crash test -- the side pole test -- might be the most attention-getting feature of the revised crash test ratings scheme, the introduction of more sophisticated crash test dummies might have the biggest overall impact on improving safety in the long haul. The crash-test dummies now include small-sized adult females and medium-sized adult males, providing further precision in the tests.

The use of dummies of various sizes helps engineers understand how people of different heights, weights and genders are affected in the event of a crash. Thanks to the more intelligently designed dummies, injury data is also being collected on additional areas of the body, including the head, chest, neck and legs.

Technology for Safer Cars

One of the most encouraging aspects of the revised NCAP is the recognition of “active-safety” devices that help drivers avoid accidents instead of simply surviving them. While not part of the five-star rating scheme, the new technology will figure prominently in NHTSA regulations. For example, the NHTSA now recognizes:

  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which helps drivers maintain control by estimating the direction the vehicle is heading in and applying pressure to individual brakes to help bring the vehicle back into the desired direction of travel
  • Forward Collision Warning (FCW), which identifies when one vehicle gets too close to another and signals the driver to apply brakes to avoid a collision
  • Lane Departure Warning (LDW), which monitors lane markers and alerts the driver if the vehicle appears to be inadvertently drifting, a sign of drowsiness or inattentiveness

NHTSA plans to do extensive testing of 2011 model year cars to build out its database and to highlight car safety. The only major downside of the new procedures is that the new five-star ratings cannot be compared to previous model years; the rule of thumb is to compare cars of like model years.

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