Years of work by IIHS-HLDI paved way for safety provisions in infrastructure bill

August 25, 2021

The infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate this month contains a slew of long-awaited highway safety provisions. Many of them are based on or supported by research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Among other things, the bill includes requirements for crash avoidance technology in passenger vehicles and large trucks, an update to the rear underride guard standard for large trucks that would align it more closely with IIHS tests, an update to headlight standards to require on-vehicle testing and to allow a new type of lighting technology, and a mandate to equip vehicles with passive alcohol detection technology.

“This bill pushes U.S. road safety policy forward in a number of areas, and we can see the work of IIHS-HLDI clearly reflected in many of the provisions,” says IIHS-HLDI President David Harkey. “In some cases, the legislation is catching up with industry changes that we have already set in motion; in others, the bill could tee up meaningful progress on issues that we have been sounding the alarm on for years.”

The bill, the result of a bipartisan compromise, has the support of President Joe Biden. Assuming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi succeeds in shepherding it through the lower chamber as she intends, it is expected to become law this year.

Crash avoidance technology

In the catching-up category are instructions to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to require forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking (AEB) on passenger vehicles. These features are already set to be standard on the vast majority of new vehicles by the 2022-23 production year, thanks to a voluntary commitment by manufacturers brokered by IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A regulation would help fill in some gaps and would also include lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist, two technologies that are often bundled with AEB but are not covered by the voluntary commitment.

Perhaps more significantly, the bill calls for a rule requiring newly manufactured large trucks to be equipped with AEB and for their drivers to be required to use the technology. This is an area in which the U.S. is behind; the European Union has required most new heavy trucks to have AEB since 2013.

IIHS and HLDI have been leaders in researching the effectiveness of crash avoidance technologies. For over a decade, HLDI has been using its trove of claims data to evaluate these features on passenger vehicles. More recently, IIHS researchers have strengthened the case for some of these features with analyses using police-reported crash data. For example, using police-reported crash data, IIHS has found that the combination of AEB and forward collision warning cuts front-to-rear crashes in half.

An IIHS study released last year found that AEB eliminated 2 out of 5 front-to-rear crashes by large trucks.

Truck underride

Another longstanding IIHS-HLDI priority included in the legislation is improvements to truck underride guards. The bill calls for an updated rear underride standard that would incorporate at least two of the three requirements for the IIHS TOUGHGUARD award: Guards would have to prevent underride by a passenger vehicle traveling 35 mph when it strikes the rear of a trailer in the center or with a 50 percent overlap. It also calls for regulators to consider requiring the most challenging part of the IIHS evaluation, the 30 percent overlap crash.

The legislation instructs DOT to conduct research into side underride guards, which have been shown to be effective in IIHS research tests.

Headlight technology

An update to headlight regulations to allow for adaptive driving beams is another item from the IIHS-HLDI wish list. The infrastructure bill instructs DOT to complete this within two years.

IIHS tests have shown that many of today’s headlights do not provide adequate visibility, and research has shown that drivers do not take full advantage of high beams when appropriate.

Adaptive driving beams are a promising solution. Instead of switching the high beams on and off, these systems continuously adjust the high-beam pattern to create a shadow around other vehicles. In this way, adaptive driving beams offer high-beam visibility except for the segment of the beam that is blocked out to limit glare for oncoming or leading drivers. IIHS research showed that glare from adaptive high beams is lower than the glare from many of the low-beam systems sold in the U.S.

The bill also requires headlights to undergo on-vehicle testing like the evaluations IIHS conducts for its ratings. Currently, only static measurements of light intensity from headlamps placed on a test rig are required. IIHS was the first to evaluate headlights by measuring their illumination from a moving vehicle, which takes into account mounting height and aim.

Alcohol-impaired driving

Drinking and driving remains a persistent highway safety problem, and progress on it has largely stalled since the 1990s. The legislation calls on DOT to require a technological solution if feasible, citing IIHS research that found that limiting all drivers to a blood alcohol concentration below 0.08 percent would save 9,400 lives a year.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), which can unobtrusively detect the level of alcohol in the driver’s blood and prevent the vehicle from moving if it is higher than a predetermined limit, has been in development by a public-private consortium for several years. IIHS is a member of the DADSS stakeholder group.

Other priorities

Other key issues dealt with in the bill include updates to NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program, distracted driving prevention and autonomous vehicles. Also of note is a new emphasis on vulnerable road users. This includes nudging regulators toward evaluating pedestrian AEB systems, as IIHS has been doing since 2019, and requiring at least 15 percent of a state’s highway safety improvement program funds to address pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonmotorized road users if these groups make up 15 percent or more of the state’s crash fatalities. IIHS-HLDI will be analyzing the details of the enormous bill in more detail in the coming weeks and months.

“The Institutes’ influence is clearly visible in many provisions of this landmark legislation,” Harkey says. “The degree to which we can classify these as safety wins will depend on how regulators carry out the instructions. We look forward to providing our input during the rulemaking process on each of these issues.”

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