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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 2 | January 31, 2005 Subscribe

New options for frontal NCAP test under consideration

Among many changes to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 is an increase from 30 to 35 mph in the speed of the front-into-flat-barrier crash test with belted dummies. When this change takes effect for 2008 models, the compliance test will be the same as the one conducted since 1978 as part of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering how to change frontal NCAP.

There are a number of possibilities. One would alter the scoring system to subdivide frontal NCAP's top-rated four- and five-star performers (most vehicles achieve these scores). Other options include using smaller or larger dummies than the current one representing an average-size man, increasing the test speed to 40 mph, or replacing the flat-barrier impact with another frontal test configuration.

The Institute urges NHTSA to adopt a new configuration instead of tinkering with the current test. Options the agency has set forth for keeping the rigid-barrier impact in a modified form would provide no useful information for consumers, the Institute told NHTSA last month. Increasing the test speed isn't advised because it would be likely to make the front ends of vehicles too stiff and airbags too aggressive.

NCAP started the safety marketplace

Before delving into options for change, the Institute reviewed the unprecedented success of the current frontal NCAP, saying it "changed the paradigm for improving vehicle safety. Prior to this program the prevailing wisdom had been that federal regulation was the only way to get safety features in new vehicles."

By identifying differences among the performances of new vehicles and prompting automakers to improve designs quickly, NCAP in its early years signified the start of the safety marketplace that is producing rapid improvements in vehicle safety designs.

The very success of frontal NCAP in producing such improvements means the program isn't identifying important safety differences anymore. This is inevitable as NCAP tests mature and become de facto standards for automakers to meet, the Institute told NHTSA.

Add offsets to compliance tests

Among the options NHTSA is considering, one would replace the flat-barrier impact with a 40 mph offset test into a deformable barrier. The Institute would like NHTSA to adopt this test, but not as part of NCAP (see "Institute comments on NHTSA proposal to require frontal offset tests," Aug. 28, 2004).

"Making such a test part of a federal safety standard would be even more beneficial," the Institute advised NHTSA.

It would be a good idea to make it part of a standard even though the Institute has been conducting frontal offset tests for a decade to supply consumers with comparative crashworthiness information. The Institute's tests already goad auto manufacturers into designing vehicles for good performance in offsets. A federal requirement would be important to ensure that advances in design are extended to all vehicles, including ones the Institute hasn't tested.

Go with a pole test for NCAP

There's an alternative test option NHTSA hasn't proposed for frontal NCAP but the Institute would like the agency to consider. Impacts into narrow objects like poles, posts, and trees make up a significant number of serious real-world crashes, so a narrow-object NCAP would be meaningful. The increased crash protection driven by such a test could be similar to that of the original frontal NCAP test, the Institute believes, so it advised NHTSA to begin research to adopt such a test.

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