NHTSA finally plans to get 5-star testing up to speed

New vehicles will have to meet more rigorous safety standards to earn five-star safety ratings doled out by federal regulators, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Wednesday.

“American car buyers want safety, and NHTSA wants to help by creating additional market-based incentives for automakers to continue investing in innovative safety technologies that will save lives and prevent injuries,” NHTSA acting administrator James Owens said in a statement.

The announcement comes as the NHTSA celebrates the 40th anniversary of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which rates crashworthiness and rollover safety with a star rating posted on every new vehicle sticker or Monroney label. The star rating system was intended to provide consumers with an easy to understand safety standard, one useful when comparing new vehicles. 

Upgrades to the rating system include “new technologies, new test procedures, updates to vehicle labeling, advancements in crash-test dummies,” and the NHTSA will consider safety measures associated with pedestrians and cyclists.

But that’s not enough to prevent or mitigate the more than 37,000 traffic fatalities every year, according to some safety groups who say the NHTSA has been asleep at the wheel.

“The U.S. NCAP has not made any significant program updates in more than a decade,” Jennifer Homendy, board member and third in command at the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a statement on Thursday. The NTSB is the federal agency charged with making transportation safer, and advocates for safety when it is lacking.

In 2015, the NTSB urged the NHTSA to include collision-avoidance systems such as automatic emergency braking as part of the star rating system. It further argued that any crash avoidance information be presented alongside the rating on the window sticker. 

“This information can lead to consumers making safer choices, which will motivate manufacturers to design safer cars—it’s a win-win for consumers and for public safety,” Homendy said. 

The NHTSA appears ready to incorporate the feedback after a protracted five years of listening to public feedback. In the meantime, the IIHS has become the standard bearer for crash safety ratings by incorporating crash-avoidance technology in its Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ rankings. 

Automakers have also let market forces lead them to install safety features as standard equipment. Most major automakers voluntarily agreed to make automatic emergency braking, which stops or slows a car when it detects an imminent crash, as standard equipment on most models by 2022. Additionally, most automakers have voluntarily agreed to make rear-seat reminders, which can prevent deaths of children or pets left in hot or cold cars, standard equipment on most new vehicles by 2025. 

But there is a lot of confusion from consumers on the safety capabilities of new cars, which is why organizations such as the NTSB, the IIHS, the National Safety Council, Consumer Reports, AAA, and others advocate for streamlined names of these safety features across automakers. Factoring these features into testing, as well as simply listing the capabilities on window stickers, promises to get the NHTSA up to speed on NCAP and make roads safer.