Federal regulators have rolled out a revised safety rating system that will now reflect the use of nine advanced technologies designed to not only keep motorists safe in a crash but also help them avoid accidents in the first place.
The updated, 5-star system will upgrade the way vehicles are tested in frontal, side and rollover accidents, and they now will take into account whether those cars, trucks and crossovers also use any of nine different technologies, such as forward collision warning or auto headlight systems.
“We’re going to raise the bar when it comes to protecting vehicle occupants,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The new rating system will now go through a 60-day public review process and could be revised before going into effect, as planned, for the 2019 model-year. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which will oversee implementation, testing and enforcement, is optimistic it will win broad support, especially at a time when there is both public and bipartisan political support for improved automotive safety.
Among those lending support to the government announcement was Deborah Hersman, director of the non-profit National Safety Council.
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“Vehicle safety is entering an entirely new dimension,” Hersman said in a statement. “Technology can do amazing, life-saving things and today, auto manufacturers are offering many amazing new technologies as options for consumers. Regulators have the opportunity and the obligation to adjust our safety standards to keep up with these safety innovations.”
Crash tests will remain central to the testing process. And among the changes announced by Foxx, NHTSA will now add a new test meant to simulate what happens when cars crash at an angle. The goal is to make the tests more reflective of what happens in real-world accidents.
Separate crash tests run by the trade group the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, were updated several years ago to include tests reflecting what happens when vehicles clip corners head-on or head poles and trees. The results have led to significant updates in the design of the latest vehicles. NHTSA now hopes to have a similar effect on engineering and design.
The new tests will also see the introduction of the latest generation of crash test dummies. Where the current design uses 50 to 60 sensors, with just one for the rib cage, the new ones should more accurately reflect what happens in a crash by using 100 sensors, four for the ribs.
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The new standards could see many vehicles receive lower ratings than they do today, according to Mark Rosekind, head of NHTSA. About nine in 10 of the models now on the road have either a four or five-star rating. That would like drop to three-and-a-half stars without upgrades, especially to the technologies they use.
Among the nine that NHTSA will focus on:
- Forward Collision Warning systems use cameras, radar or a combination of technologies to alert a driver to a possible crash. More advanced systems also can apply the brakes automatically should a driver fail to response quickly enough;
- Automatic headlight systems can switch from high to standard beams when detecting a vehicle in the same lane ahead, or oncoming traffic;
- Lane Departure Warning systems alert a driver who might inadvertently drift out of their lane.
Other technologies are meant to help prevent rollover accidents, and better signal a turn by switching the color of rear turn signals to amber, which is more easily distinguished from a vehicle’s brake lights.
The IIHS took a similar step recently. It now requires a vehicle to come with forward collision warning in order to receive a Top Safety Pick+ rating.
“Whether these technologies are mandated in the future or not, we think this is market changing stuff that is going to impact safety to the good,” Foxx said.
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Safety advocates say technologies such as electronic stability control have led to a sharp reduction in vehicle fatalities in recent years. The highway death toll has dropped 40% since reaching its peak four decades ago. But there was an unexpected increase during the first half of 2015, federal regulators reported last month, in part due to motorists clocking more miles as the economy has recovered and fuel prices have plunged to a seven-year low.