The US government is finally realizing that cars kill people outside the car too

The US government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as a five-star safety rating, is awarded major update. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Thursday announced a set of new federal program proposals aimed at curbing the increase in pedestrian deaths.

For the first time, NHTSA will consider including Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS – sorry for all the acronyms!) features, such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, and lane-keep assist. ADAS features, which are quickly becoming standard on most vehicles today, could become key criteria for obtaining a five-star safety rating from the government.

Traditionally, NHTSA assigns safety ratings to new cars and trucks by putting a few dummies to crash test inside a vehicle and bumping it into a wall at high speed. But this system only assesses the risks to car occupants – not the risk to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.

NHTSA acknowledges that this is no longer a defensible system. “For the first time ever, the NCAP program includes technology recommendations not just for drivers and passengers but for out-of-vehicle road users, such as pedestrians,” said Stephen Cliff, NHTSA Deputy Chief of Staff. He said in a statement.

The EU version of NCAP is different and obviously better. Vehicles receive a five-star rating only if they can demonstrate that they can come to a complete stop – or at least slow down – before hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. Under President Obama, the NHTSA began an operation A review of the NCAP program to address the safety of those outside the car; Under President Trump, this effort has been abandoned.

But President Joe Biden revived it through Bipartisan infrastructure plan, which was signed into law last year. In addition to requiring passenger cars to include forward collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keep assist, it has also directed the Department of Transportation to review the NCAP program to include these features in its safety rating standards.

The idea is to assess motor vehicle safety on a range of new technologies that can stop risky driving behavior before it occurs. As a result, NCAP tests will become more rigorous, and vehicles without these features are more likely to receive a lower rating. As David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an outspoken advocate for automobile safety, wrote in Bloomberg last year:

From the start, NCAP has been a consumer education program intended to help Americans understand the relative safety of new cars before they buy. Automakers can ignore the NCAP program if they choose, but federal law requires its ratings to be placed on car window stickers at car dealerships…automakers eagerly strive for the best five-star NCAP ratings, and they show off when they get them.

However, NHTSA’s new proposals may not be enough. As Zipper notesThe agency said it would conduct “tests” to determine whether to include automatic emergency braking for cyclists, as its European counterparts have done.

The new proposals come amid a tragic – but perfectly predictable – increase in the number of traffic deaths. Even with fewer Americans on the way during the pandemic, nearly 39,000 people have been killed during 2020 – the highest death toll since 2007. 2021 is shaping up to be another record year, With nearly 32,000 deaths from January to September. (NHTSA is still collecting data from the last three months of the year.)

It was a particularly bloody year for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2020, cyclist deaths increased by more than 9%, marking the highest number since 1987. Deaths in cities rose by nearly 9%, and the number of pedestrian deaths approached 4%, the highest number since 1989.

“There is a crisis on America’s roads: 3,000 people die every month, and the numbers have only gotten worse in recent years,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “These important changes will help save lives on our roads by ensuring that consumers have the information they need about the latest safety technologies when buying a new vehicle.”

The relationship between vehicle design and pedestrian fatalities is very clear. Usually the most common types of vehicles, SUVs and vans, are the most dangerous. While people who drive SUVs are somewhat safer, the number of pedestrians killed by these drivers has risen by 81 percent in the past decade, according to a report released a few years ago by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

This is mostly due to the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and higher vehicles mean pedestrians are more likely to suffer fatal blows to the head and torso. The higher clearance means that victims are more likely to get caught under a speeding SUV rather than being pushed over the hood or to the side.

Overhauling the NCAP program could potentially fatally punish vehicles that were designed in this way. That could have a huge impact on the design of today’s SUV and truck—but only if NHTSA sticks to its guns and embraces these proposals.

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