The US government is finally realizing that cars also kill people outside the vehicle

The US Government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as the Five Star Safety Assessment, has received major updates. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced on Thursday a set of new proposals for a federal program aimed at curbing the increase in pedestrian deaths.

For the first time, NHTSA will consider the inclusion of an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS – sorry for all the acronyms!) Features such as automatic emergency stop, dead zone detection and lane saving assistance. These ADAS features, which are fast becoming the standard in most vehicles today, could become a major benchmark for a five-star government safety rating.

Traditionally, NHTSA assigns safety assessments to new cars and trucks by placing several crash test dummies inside the vehicle and driving it into a wall at high speed. But this system really only assesses the risks to passengers in the car, not the danger to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.

NHTSA recognizes that this is no longer a resilient system

NHTSA recognizes that this is no longer a resilient system. “For the first time in history, the NCAP includes technology recommendations not only for drivers and passengers, but also for off-road users, such as pedestrians,” said Stephen Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator.

The European Union version of NCAP is different and obviously better. Vehicles receive a five-star rating only if they can demonstrate the ability to stop completely – or at least slow down – before colliding with a pedestrian or cyclist. Under President Obama, NHTSA has begun the process of revising the NCAP to address the safety of those outside the vehicle; under President Trump, that effort was abandoned.

But President Joe Biden resurrected him through a two-party infrastructure plan signed last year. In addition to requiring passenger cars to include frontal collision warnings, automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assistance, he also ordered the Ministry of Transport to revise the NCAP to include these features in its safety assessment criteria.

The idea is to assess the car safety of many new technologies that can stop risky driving behavior before it even happens. As a result, NCAP tests will become more stringent and vehicles that do not include these features are likely to receive a lower rating. As David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an active advocate for car safety, wrote in Bloomberg last year:

From the beginning, NCAP has been a consumer education program designed to help Americans understand the relative safety of new cars before making a purchase. Carmakers can ignore NCAP if they choose, but federal law requires that its ratings be affixed to car window stickers at car dealerships … Carmakers are looking forward to the best five-star NCAP ratings and bragging when they receive them.

However, new NHTSA proposals may not go far enough. As Zipper notesthe agency says it will “carry out tests” to determine whether to include an automatic emergency stop for cyclists, as its European counterparts have done.

The new proposals come amid a tragic – but completely predictable – increase in the number of people killed in trafficking. Although fewer Americans traveled the road during the pandemic, nearly 39,000 people were killed in 2020 – the highest number of deaths since 2007. And 2021 is set to be another record year, with nearly 32,000 people dying from January to September. (NHTSA still collects data from the last three months of the year.)

These were particularly bloody years for pedestrians and cyclists

These were particularly bloody years for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2020, cyclist deaths increased by more than 9 percent, reaching their highest level since 1987. Urban deaths increased by almost 9 percent, and pedestrian deaths approached 4 percent, the most the highest number since 1989

“There is a crisis on America’s roads: 3,000 people are dying every month, and the numbers have only gotten worse in recent years,” said US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigig in a statement. “These important changes will help save lives on our roads by ensuring that consumers have the necessary information about the latest safety technologies when buying a new vehicle.

The link between vehicle design and pedestrian deaths is quite clear. The most popular types of vehicles, jeeps and pickups, are usually the most dangerous. While people driving SUVs are a little safer, the number of pedestrians killed by those drivers has risen 81 percent in the past decade, according to a report released several years ago by the Road Safety Insurance Institute.

This is mainly due to the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and taller carriages mean that pedestrians are more likely to suffer fatal blows to the head and torso. Higher ground clearances mean that victims are more likely to be trapped under an accelerating SUV instead of being pushed onto the hood or side.

A revised NCAP can penalize vehicles that are designed in this deadly way. This could have a huge impact on the current design of SUVs and trucks – but only if NHTSA sticks to its weapons and accepts these proposals.