April 5, 2013 at 2:55 PM ET
Federal safety regulators have continued to tighten automotive crash standards in recent years – but now are considering a new rating system that would make it easier for motorists to judge not only how a vehicle performs overall but how well it might protect older drivers, passengers and even pedestrians.
Evidence shows that older motorists have unique problems that can result in more serious injuries during a crash, whether driving or sitting in a back seat, something that may lead to the creation of a new “silver” rating, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced in a posting in the Federal Register.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency also is considering new rear seat crash ratings. And a separate system could be initiated for pedestrians, as well. Europe already has set extensive mandates for pedestrian safety which have resulted in such innovations as a new Volvo airbag system that pops open on the base of the windshield if someone is struck by the vehicle.
Crash data show that older drivers and passengers are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in a crash, something several automakers have already tried to address. Ford, for example, has introduced a new rear-seat seatbelt system that has a built-in airbag. It is offered on such models as the Explorer, the maker explains, noting that both younger and older passengers who often sit in rear seats are likely to suffer more serious chest injuries from conventional seatbelts.
NHTSA is reportedly also considering a new ratings system for young children.
During a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., NHTSA Administrator Strickland said there may be some push-back from manufacturers over the proposed silver rating system since the industry routinely prefers to pitch products to younger buyers – even though aging Baby Boomers still make up the majority of the new vehicle market.
"They're saying nobody wants to be the car for seniors, but the baby boom is the largest generation in the history of this country," Strickland said. "And they're buying cars."
The proposals received at least an initial thumbs up, however, from the industry trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Spokesman Wade Newton told the Bloomberg news service, “Safety is critical to automakers and we welcome this notice.”
The group plans to offer “constructive comments” during the mandated discussion period. It is unclear how long it might take to actually implement the proposed ratings changes, if approved, but Stickland noted that revisions to the current federal crash test system that went into effect for the 2011 model-year took three years to lock down.
NHTSA’s proposed changes reflect the general push to both improve vehicle safety and provide more accurate guidance to consumers. And the agency is feeling pressure from outside to make such changes.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts its own, well-publicized series of crash tests, recently added a new measure designed to simulate common offset crashes not currently conducted by the feds.
Meanwhile, European regulators have their own standards and test procedures and, on a Continent with densely crowded cities, they have put a premium on pedestrian safety. That, in turn, has led to a number of changes designed to reduce deaths and injuries, whether through modifications of hood and bumper design or through the use of advanced technologies.
Along with the new Volvo exterior airbag system, the maker has taken a lead with its City Safety technology that can automatically brake if a pedestrian or – with the newest update, a bicyclist – moves into the vehicle’s path.
Pedestrian safety is gaining more attention in the U.S., in part, due to a recent and unexpected increase in fatalities. But it is unclear if NHTSA will also move to adopt some of the crash protection rules now mandated in Europe or simply develop a pedestrian safety rating system.
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