Father securing baby in the car seat

"The voluntary commitment of automotive companies to make low-speed automatic emergency braking with forward-collision warning standard in 2022 models is just a little too late, given that the technology has been around for over 20 years."

Football players expect helmet makers to keep up with the times – and keep them safe. And I think car buyers need to do the same with our country’s outdated car safety rating system. 

In the 1970s, the sporting equipment company, Riddell, revolutionized the football game by introducing vinyl pads inside the helmet. As a ready-made airbag, a pad could be inflated to absorb impact. 

Today, Riddell boasts they used over 2 million real on-the-field data points to design their current helmets.

In 40 years, our cars have improved, as well. The biggest safety equipment innovations of the last century, the three-point safety belts and airbags, required strong leadership and revolutionary thinking on the part of our federal government. 

But things are different now.

One of the pioneers leading the charge in the consumer-orientated 1970s was Joan Claybrook. Under her leadership, the federal government created the revolutionary New Car Assessment Program or NCAP. 

That system of crashing new cars in a laboratory with dummies evolved into the federal 5-star safety rating system in the 1990s. By pointing consumers to cars that earned 4 and 5 stars, the federal program nudged the automotive industry into making safer cars. Undoubtedly, that program has saved countless lives.

Forty years later, the pioneer of that program is sounding the alarm. Ms. Claybrook and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety issued a scathing report in October that scolded our government for abdicating leadership in car safety rating systems.

 Whereas in the 1970s we led the world and provided a blueprint for a rating system for countries around the globe, we now rank far behind Europe, Asia and Latin America. Europe, for example, has four times as many tests for rating cars than we do.

For example, we could be testing new technologies for pedestrian detection, but we don’t. NCAP could, but doesn’t, evaluate driver assistance systems – such as forward-collision warning, automatic-emergency braking and lane-departure warnings.

The voluntary commitment of automotive companies to make low-speed automatic emergency braking with forward-collision warning standard in 2022 models is just a little too late, given that the technology has been around for over 20 years. 

For a few years now, our federal government promised the addition of new test procedures, rating of technologies and the addition of new crash-test dummies to better represent drivers and passengers. 

But, as Claybrook points out, any substantive changes will require the right funding and political will.

As modern-day consumers, we should once again thank Ms. Claybrook for her commitment to our common welfare. 

But, even if the reforms do succeed, I believe these changes still won’t be enough to bring NCAP into the modern era of car safety. That’s because NCAP intends to keep relying on controlled crash tests with plastic dummies, and not real crash data. 

Remember today’s football helmet? It uses over 2 million data points from on-field impacts. That’s real data – and real innovation – the kind that we, as modern consumers, demand. 

You may be wondering, “if only there were a database with the same richness of real information about U.S. vehicles crashes.” 

News alert: that database exists. It’s called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a government database of all fatal crashes on U.S. roads. Your taxes have been funding this massive data collection program since 1975. 

Anyone can access this data, but it’s not easy to understand for the typical consumer. It’s only really accessible to researchers in government, the auto industry, and academics like me, who routinely mine this information. 

If you worked for NHTSA and had this data about how cars perform in real crashes with real people inside, why wouldn’t you use it instead of or in addition to controlled lab tests with dummies? 

Relying only on crash testing to rate car safety seems out of touch with, well, reality.

Suppose a drug has been in the market for three years. Would you only rely on information about its clinical trials? Wouldn’t you want to know how effective it has been over the past three years with people in the general population? 

Today, we, as consumers, crave real information. 

Safety advocates like Claybrook are urging NHTSA to keep up with the times – and the world. They want more crashes with a wider variety of plastic dummies. I applaud their dedication and tenacity.

I also think that it’s time to do something revolutionary. Yes, test the h____ out of new cars. Make these tests and ratings more realistic. 

And, once these cars hit the marketplace, use real on-the-road experience to rate how well these cars have protected real people in real crashes. 

The data exists. What’s missing is the leadership.

Norma Hubele is a professor emeritus of Arizona State University and the creator of TheAutoProfessor.com, a free website that helps families make safer car choices.

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