Feds mull major revamp of 5-star safety ratings

December 9, 2015 01:04 PM

You know those 5-star safety ratings given out by the Transportation Department? Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have announced a major revamp of the system.

"NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings have set the bar on safety since it began in 1978, and today we are raising that bar," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "The changes provide more and better information to new-vehicle shoppers that will help accelerate the technology innovations that saves lives."

Pedestrian safety to be addressed for first time
The proposal is to add new elements like how well a vehicle protects pedestrians in a crash. After all, a pedestrian dies in a traffic crash every two hours, according to 2013 data cited by Consumer Reports. The new safety rating would be based on a car or truck's ability to limit damage to a pedestrian's head, leg and pelvis.

Another wrinkle would be the addition of half-stars to the current system of one through five stars, MotorTrend highlighted in a report on the proposed changes. The idea is the half-stars would give more exact information to car buyers. Since the system began in 1978, it has continually evolved with the idea of giving consumers a baseline with which to compare safety features across different vehicles. As the slogan goes, "the more stars means safer cars."

Angled crashes added to mix
A new type of crash would be added to the ones already performed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would add angled crashes to the existing ones for head-on collisions, side-impact crashes and sideways crashes into objects like utility poles. The agency also tests for susceptibility to rolling over. The new crash test, which examines the impact of the common collision in which a car crosses a center line to strike another vehicle, would mirror one done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The revamped program would provide 5-star ratings to advanced safety features like blind-spot monitoring and lane departure warnings. Such features are quickly becoming standard on new cars. Right now the feds simply list recommended features instead of providing detailed comparisons between different versions of these technologies.

Better crash test dummies
Other improvements to the system would be the introduction of new crash test dummies that provide researchers more information on what would likely happen to a human body in the same situation.

Consumer Reports gave the government kudos for proposing upgrades it has long recommended.

"These changes will make the 5-star safety ratings more challenging for automakers and more useful to consumers in determining which vehicles are truly the safest," the consumer research organization said.

The changes are not set in stone. The public has two months to comment on them. You can read the full proposal if you'd like to add your two cents. Federal officials hope to finalize the new procedures by the end of 2016. In any case, the new tests are not set to take effect at the earliest for model year 2019 vehicles.

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