NHTSA Revises Five-Star Safety Ratings

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has revised its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as the Five-Star Safety Rating System, including such new aspects as an additional crash test, a new test dummy to represent smaller passengers and new injury criteria for the existing side-impact test. It also has added an overall summary rating intended to make it easier for consumers to assess a new vehicle's safety at a glance.

This program revision marks one of the biggest changes since safety testing was first conducted in 1978. The first vehicles to undergo the new crash tests are 2011 models, but because the scores will be fundamentally different, they cannot be compared to prior years. Additionally, visitors to car dealerships might not see the ratings on vehicle window stickers for a few months — or longer.

Why the Change?
Educators are sometimes accused of "teaching to the test" so students will achieve high scores in standardized exams. Automakers have essentially done the same thing with respect to vehicle structure: They've figured out how to ace the government's testing protocol. Among the 2010 models the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tested, nearly every vehicle earned a five-star rating for the frontal-impact test. The ones that didn't still earned four stars, and received the lower score for the passenger frontal crash test. When this many vehicles are getting high marks, the tests must become more rigorous in order to move the safety bar higher.

"We want to make manufacturers stretch to make the cars as safe as we believe is technologically feasible," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "The tests need to keep up with the state-of-the-art technology."

What's New?
One of the more significant changes to the NCAP tests is the addition of a small female dummy to the crash tests. In the past, a medium-sized male dummy was used to represent all drivers. "We recognize that this didn't properly capture a significant portion of the American populace," Strickland said. "We added the small female dummy to capture how a crash would impact them in terms of injuries."

This dummy can be representative of a smaller adult female or a child. The male dummy has also been upgraded with additional sensors to measure injury data. This now gives NHTSA a better idea of how different-shaped bodies react in an accident.

A new side pole test has been added to the testing process to simulate a crash involving a narrow stationary object like a tree or telephone pole. In this test, the female dummy is placed in the driver seat and secured with a seatbelt. The test vehicle is angled at 75 degrees and pulled sideways at 20 mph into a 25-centimeter-wide pole aimed at the driver's seating position.

Once the crash tests are conducted, NHTSA engineers carry out a full injury assessment to measure the force of impact on the dummy's head, chest, lower spine, abdomen and pelvis. This data will be used to measure the severity of injuries sustained in the crash. The results will be available to the public on Safercar.gov.

The revised testing program will also make consumers aware of whether the vehicle comes equipped with any crash-avoidance technology, such as electronic stability control, a lane-departure warning system or forward-collision warning system. Though the technologies are not factored into the scoring for the star rating, NHTSA will put the information in a more prominent location on the window sticker, where consumers will already be looking for safety information.

The other NCAP tests — frontal crash, side impact and rollover — are largely unchanged, but the addition of the different-sized dummies and the data they collect will yield different results.

All of the crash and safety tests carry a certain weighting that will factor into the new overall score, which is intended to make it easier to compare a vehicle to others that consumers might consider buying. In the past there would only be star ratings for each category of test, without anything to tie together the results for buyers. "We wanted to make it easier for consumers to evaluate the overall safety of the vehicle," Strickland said.

The idea of a simple overall rating is a good one, said Henry Jasny, general counsel for Washington D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies and agents. While some consumers pay very close attention to safety rating information, they're not the majority.

"There are consumers who don't read a lot of info, don't look at Web sites or comparative charts," he said. "A large percentage of the population, even on a big-ticket item like a car, wants a simple thing," which is a snapshot assessment of the vehicle's safety.

Because the data obtained from the new crash tests is different from that obtained under the previous testing protocol, NHTSA cautions that they cannot be compared to each other. A vehicle that earned five stars in 2010 could potentially earn a lower score in 2011 model-year testing because of the revised protocol. Visitors to Safercar.gov will find that the site does not allow a comparison between 2011 vehicles and older vehicles, and that division will continue with subsequent model years. NHTSA is advising consumers to compare vehicles within the same testing generation, or to judge each vehicle on its own merits.

A Sticky Situation
Eventually, the revised safety ratings will appear on new cars' Monroney label: the window sticker that carries the vehicle's essential pricing, fuel and features information. The Monroney sticker is considered a federal document, and there is a fair amount of red tape to clear before it can be altered. Though the new crash ratings have already launched, the design for the window sticker has not yet been finalized.

Additionally, the window sticker is in a state of flux because the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation are currently in the process of redesigning the fuel economy section of the sticker. The EPA has said that its fuel economy label will appear on 2012 vehicles. Strickland told Edmunds that NHTSA is working with the EPA to get the star-rating information out to the public as soon as possible. But in a worst-case scenario, the two organizations may wait until the 2012 model year to launch the "all-new" window sticker that incorporates both fuel economy and safety rating information.

For the immediate future, car shoppers will most likely be directed to the Safercar.gov Web site, either by a salesperson or by cards and posters that NHTSA is making available to dealers. The NHTSA Web site provides the most up-to-date safety information on all vehicles tested. It has also undergone a redesign to make it more user-friendly, according to NHTSA.

We're All Winners
It's easy to get overwhelmed by all these star ratings and testing procedures. The important thing to know is that the tests have gotten tougher and the overall safety score has made it even easier to get to the bottom line on a car's safety. NHTSA points out that there are no unsafe vehicles. Even a vehicle that has earned just one star still has met a minimum federal safety requirement.