NHTSA revamps safety ratings to include side-pole crash tests, new technologies

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October 26, 2010

NHTSA revamps safety ratings to include side-pole crash tests, new technologies 

Courtney L. Davenport

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced earlier this month that its safety ratings system is being revamped to include side-pole crash testing and evaluation of crash-prevention technologies. The agency will also issue an overall score for each vehicle tested and will—for the first time—use female dummies in its crash tests.

The agency uses the public ratings system to pressure automakers to include safety features beyond the minimum requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Trial lawyers say the ratings play a significant role in vehicle safety.

“The safety ratings are the most important government activity to get automakers to make vehicles safer,” said Milwaukee attorney Donald Slavik, who frequently represents plaintiffs injured in auto accidents. “Every time they extend the testing, manufacturers have made changes because they don’t want to fall behind everyone else. It’s a marketing issue.”

According to NHTSA, many vehicles had started to receive the highest rating of five stars, indicating a need for more rigorous standards. Some automobiles that previously received five stars will likely drop in the rankings.

The new system includes a side-pole crash test to simulate a vehicle striking a utility pole or tree. The test vehicle is angled 75 degrees and then pulled sideways at 20 mph into a pole while a small adult female dummy measures impact to the head, chest, lower spine, abdomen, and pelvis.

The agency will also look at whether the vehicle uses three safety technologies that have become more common but are not yet standard in all vehicles. “Forward collision warning” signals when a vehicle is getting too close to the vehicle in front of it, and “lane departure warning” alerts the driver if the vehicle drifts into another lane.

The third technology, electronic stability control (ESC), applies the brakes if a driver suddenly loses control and has been proven to significantly decrease the chances of a rollover. Plaintiff attorneys have long argued that ESC is an essential safety component.

Slavik noted that manufacturers began installing ESC in some vehicles years ago, but many less expensive models still don’t have ESC as a standard feature.

“If an SUV didn’t have ESC by 2007, you could argue it was defective. Same for cars,” he said. “It should have been standard.”

NHTSA said the use of a small female dummy in crash tests, in addition to the traditional average-sized adult male dummy, is an important change.

“Data shows that women are at greater risk of injury or death in frontal and side car crashes than men due to their smaller stature when subjected to the same type of crash as men,” said NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana.

The enhanced ratings system will go into effect for model 2011 vehicles.

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