Does the New Federal Vehicle Safety Regulation Proposal Go Far Enough? 

Vehicle Safety

By Angie Schmitt

NHTSA is updating the New Car Assessment Program, the U.S.’s five-star vehicle safety rating system, which experts say is badly out of date and contributing to the U.S.’s worsening traffic safety record. America Walks interviews David Ward, Executive President, Toward Zero Foundation, London, a global expert on NCAP about how the proposed legislation — a big opportunity to improve pedestrian safety — measures up. 

Angie Schmitt: Tell me a little about what you do and your organization.

David Ward: I’m the executive President of the Global New Car Assessment Program. And that program is 10 years old now and it serves as a platform for cooperation between NCAPs around the world. The particular focus we’ve had over the last decade is establishing NCAPs in emerging markets, rapidly maturizing regions, like Latin America, Southeast Asia, India, and so on. 

Personally, I was involved in the creation of Euro NCAP, many years ago, 25 years ago. I’ve been part of the whole NCAP movement for about 25 years now.

AS: We better back up and explain what NCAP (the U.S. five-star vehicle safety rating program) is. 

DW: New Car Assessment Programs are actually a U.S. invention. They started back in the 1970s with Joan Claybrook, who was then the NHTSA administrator. The beauty of NCAPs is that they can be more flexible than regulations. They can test above industry standards and their essential purpose is to inform consumers about the different performance of vehicles so that the vehicle purchasers can buy the safest vehicles they can afford and they’ve been very, very powerful accelerators of progress above and beyond regulatory requirements.

AS: That’s one thing that is really interesting about this. The U.S. really was at the forefront of rating cars for safety decades ago. Back in the Ralph Nader era, we really kind of pioneered this kind of regulation. But over time, Europe and some other nations, some Asian nations, have surpassed us in the amount of safety they’re providing and how effective their programs are.

DW: Yeah unfortunately that’s true. Certainly, the U.S. in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, was a real pioneer. Then it started to fall behind a bit. Most NCAP programs in the world, every four to five years they upgrade their tests to keep up with technology and to become tougher.

But what happened was the Obama Administration had proposed to update the U.S. NCAP, which had already fallen behind a bit. And they introduced that fairly late in his second term. And unfortunately, it wasn’t implemented before the arrival of President Trump, and the automakers — at the time, rather disastrously — proposed a rollback on all regulatory standards, environment, and so on. But U.S. NCAP got caught up in that so it stalled.

So the net result is the U.S. NCAP has basically been static for 10 years, which is a really long time period given the evolution of technology. So it is fair to say the U.S. NCAP program has slipped way behind where the European NCAP program is, where the Japanese program is, even where the Chinese program is in some respects.

AS: Now we have this issue in the United States, I’ve written a lot about this, where our traffic safety outcomes are really pretty unspectacular, arguably pretty bad. Especially during the pandemic we’ve been seeing across the board traffic fatalities rise, particularly for vulnerable users like pedestrians we’ve seen a huge increase. Cycling deaths are up too. 

This is a very technical document. But there’s a lot of potential to save lives with these sensor technologies like Automatic Emergency Braking and Automatic Pedestrian Detection. What’s your opinion whether this regulation that’s being put forward sort of makes the grade.

DW: The U.S., by comparison with Europe, is seriously underperforming. Over the last decade, Europe has nearly halved its road deaths.

I think there’s a big opportunity for the U.S. to make a step change and catch up with where Europe is now. And part of that is the regulatory story. In Europe, from next July, a whole raft of new mandatory requirements are being introduced across the vehicle classes, which include automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, all kinds of technology, and also intelligent speed assistance, which is a system that tells the driver of the vehicle what the speed is but also will slow the vehicle to adhere to the speed limit.

Vehicle Safety

AS: And that’s going to be mandatory in Europe starting this year. 

DW: Yeah these will be mandatory across the European Union from July the 6th. So it’s a really big shift toward these crash avoidance systems. And it’s a big shift of orientation beyond simply occupant protection toward protection for vulnerable road users.

So I think the U.S. could learn a lot from the experience in Europe.

AS: That’s one of the things you sometimes hear about these regulations is that you need harmonization with international policies, particularly Europe because a lot of automakers are selling cars in Europe and in Asia, and South America. But I think there’s a little bit of political resistance from some of the American automakers who are making the big SUVs and pickup trucks that you talked about.

DW: I think the U.S. would gain from greater harmonization. And there are advantages to this because the bigger the scale of the market, for example, if you have more AEB systems required globally, the scale of the market grows, unit costs come down. And actually, it just makes the whole thing more affordable as well as spreads safety technologies wider. 

I think the U.S. is losing competitive advantage because of this kind of regulatory isolation.  President Trump once made a joke about pedestrian protection complaining that U.S. vehicles couldn’t be sold in Japan because the hood requirements were too stringent. But actually, the real answer was the U.S. should have been applying this standard.

AS: So they’ve issued a rulemaking, which means they’ve proposed changing the law. Do you think it goes far enough?

DW: My initial reaction is that it’s moving in the right direction and that it contains some very good things, for example, Automatic Emergency Braking. 

There are one or two omissions though. The omission which does surprise me is that back in 2015 when the Obama Administration proposed updated U.S. NCAP, it was proposed that the U.S. apply the same pedestrian protection tests that are applied in Europe, which are all about softening the front area of the bumper and the hood. We expected them to be included. So I’m a bit disappointed that that seems to have disappeared. Maybe that will come back in another way through another federal rulemaking. (Editors note: America Walks’ understanding is that NHTSA intends to address hood and bumper design in a separate rulemaking.)

One of the important things about the softer hood is it works in combination with Automatic Emergency Braking. The AEB system, when it’s working well, is basically taking out speed and hopefully preventing a collision from occurring at all. So when you have the benefit of less kinetic energy and then these softer vehicle fronts make the injury less severe for pedestrians. 

Another area I think is very interesting, which they do mention as an area to look at and that’s all, is Intelligent Speed Assistance.

AS: I want to hop in for a second. Intelligent Speed Assistance means speed limiting. It means the car can’t exceed the posted speed limit.

DW: That’s right. What it does using a combination of maps or digital maps, the vehicle will not be able to exceed the speed limit. You can override because sometimes in emergency situations you just need to do that, but it will then default back to observing the speed limit.

It’s a really important step change. It will ease the burden on police enforcement because in a way the whole vehicle fleet will be self-enforcing. It obviously takes a decade or so for the whole vehicle fleet to turn over. But once you’ve got something like 50 or 60 percent of all the vehicles with this system, it’s like a massive traffic calming exercise. 

There were multiple cost-benefit analyses that were used to justify the European policy showing it would save lives and have environmental benefits. It’s a win-win technology.

I think the U.S. would definitely benefit from moving in this direction. I have an ISA system in my own car, which is actually a retrofit system, and I’ve become extremely fond of this system. It just stops me worrying about inadvertently speeding if I’m on a road that I’m not familiar with. It makes for a relaxed driving style. 

Often when people talk about ISA, there’s this sort of knee jerk, ‘this is big brother, the state interfering with how we drive.’ The real driving experience isn’t like that at all.

AS: In this latest document, NHTSA has proposed a sort of looking at Intelligent Speed Assistance in the medium term. But that’s all So you think potentially they should be moving on that in the shorter term?

DW: The three largest vehicle markets in the world are China, Europe, and the U.S. And when you have one of those vehicle markets adopting ISA, it’s really a wakeup call to other markets and the U.S. Because if Europe can do it, why can’t the U.S.? Given that Europe has a better safety record. There’s really no need to reinvent wheels here or go back to some kind of fundamental research because all of the evidence you need already exists.

AS: Thank you, David! If you want to comment on the proposed regulation you can do so at this link. Comments are due by May 9th. 

Be sure to check on our previous post on this topic and join David Ward and other panelists for our Webinar on this topic May 12th. Sign up today!