In response to proposals from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to improve the amount and quality of consumer information provided by its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), the Institute offered a degree of encouragement in both a letter to the agency and a statement delivered at hearings held in March. However, Institute president Adrian Lund's main message was that the changes under consideration are "unlikely to have the same effect on vehicle designs as the first NCAP crash tests."
Expressing support for the idea of expanding NCAP by adding the Institute's rear crash protection ratings, Lund also praised a proposal to expand NCAP with information about electronic stability control (see "ESC reduces multiple-vehicle crashes as well as single-vehicle ones," June 13, 2006). At the same time, he cautioned, information about crash avoidance features shouldn't be added in lieu of enhancing the vehicle crashworthiness ratings that NCAP has been providing to consumers for years. After all, the new features won't ensure that vehicles don't ever crash, so the agency needs to continue to push the vehicle design improvements that will protect people in serious crashes. This won't happen under the proposed NCAP changes, Lund points out.
Specific aspects of NCAP would fall short
The frontal test hasn't been substantially changed in NCAP's 30 years, and the latest proposals wouldn't change it much either. They would add injury measures that would provide more details but wouldn't drive dramatically different vehicle designs. Lund encouraged the agency to join the Institute in seeking a new test paradigm.
This isn't the first time Lund has asked the government to upgrade the frontal test. At hearings in 1994, he observed that NCAP's frontal ratings no longer identify important safety differences among vehicles. A decade later he called for frontal offset tests (see "New Car Assessment Program needs a lot more than tinkering," Jan. 14, 1995, and "Institute comments on NHTSA proposal to require frontal offset tests," Aug. 28, 2004).
Proposed changes to NCAP's side test aren't any more inspiring. They would encourage automakers to fit vehicles with side airbags that protect people's heads, but by the time the proposed test would begin doing this the vast majority of vehicles already will have such airbags. About half already do.
Lund said the government "also has missed an opportunity with regard to rollover." He suggested conducting "additional research on the issue of roof crush, and we believe this research would justify the addition of a roof crush metric to NCAP." The government's plan to provide more information about electronic stability control to prevent rollover isn't enough, Lund added, because 4,000 deaths still would occur in rollovers each year, even if this feature could prevent half of all deaths in such crashes.
Big NCAP picture isn't inspiring
The government isn't proposing the kinds of changes that would restore luster to what Lund described as "one of the most important programs" the agency ever adopted. Sharing this view is Joan Claybrook, the former federal official who launched NCAP in 1978. At the recent hearings she expressed concern that "the agency has omitted many critical issues." She requested more improvements and suggested that automakers do more.
The government "has the authority to restructure NCAP and require auto manufacturers to crash test vehicle models before making them available for sale," Claybrook pointed out. She urged the agency to "use this authority" and to "hold manufacturer NCAP testing accountable" by running random tests for verification.
The Institute supports this idea. It's essentially how this organization now conducts frontal crashworthiness evaluations for consumer information (see Status Report special issue: frontal crash test verifications, March 29, 2006).