By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/20/2008 5:44:51 PM ET 2008-03-20T21:44:51

If you had to pick one feature everyone wants in a new car and it would probably be safety. Fuel economy, design, performance and reliability are all important, but safety is critical.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s star-based rating system was designed to make it easy for consumers to see how a particular vehicle performed in a variety of government crash tests and compare it to other models. But that rating system, which started in 1994, is out of date and needs to be changed.

“It no longer accomplishes its primary purpose – to identify those vehicles which are safer and those that are less safe – because all the vehicles now get four or five stars,” explains Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

For example, every 2008 SUV rated by the government got five stars in the side-impact test. In the front-impact test, 96 percent of them got four or five stars. But all of these vehicles do not provide the same level of protection.

“NHTSA’s ratings were good in the past,” says David Champion, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. “But today, we put much more credence in what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does in their testing.” Champion says the IIHS tests are more stringent and better distinguish between good and poor vehicles.

“It’s pretty clear that we need to raise the bar and we’re going to do that,” says NHTSA spokesman Ray Dyson. Last year, the agency proposed changing its crash test program to make it harder for vehicles to earn five stars. NHTSA says it wants to improve the current front-impact and rollover tests. It would also like the ratings to reflect that a vehicle has some type of proven crash avoidance technology, such as electronic stability control.

The auto industry seems to support the idea of improving the government’s crash tests – with a number of qualifications. Wade Newton, of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, tells me any changes must result in true safety benefits and “be based on sound science, field data and careful analysis that truly reflect real-world conditions.”

What needs to be done?
When the side-crash test was developed, most of the vehicles on the road were passenger cars. So the current test simulates a passenger car slamming into the side of the vehicle being tested. But 50 percent of the vehicles sold today are SUVs and pickup trucks. They have much higher bumpers than passenger cars.

“That means these tests are only simulating what might happen 50 percent of the time,” says David Champion of Consumer Reports. He wants NHTSA’s tests to reflect the bigger vehicles on the road today and consider additional factors in scoring the results.

Right now, the government’s frontal crash test measures impact to the head and torso of the occupants. That makes sense, since injuries here are most likely to result in death. Champion would like to see leg injuries incorporated into the safety ratings. “There are many debilitating injuries from crushed leg bones that could easily be recorded during those tests,” he says.

Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety, also wants the tests to be more demanding and he would like to see the grading system changed. He suggests a 10-star system. “That way you’d know there’s a big difference between a vehicle with seven stars and one with 10 stars,” he says.

Better safety information is already available
For 28 years, Jack Gillis has written “The Car Book,” the first publication to give consumers access to the government’s crash test ratings. For the 2008 edition, Gillis developed a new front and side crash test rating that is more sensitive than one to five stars. (The book is published by the Center for Auto Safety.)

“We haven’t changed any of the crash-test data,” Gillis tells me. “We simply took the information and analyzed it in a different way and found significant differences.” Gillis says a vehicle with four or five stars “may actually be one of the worst performers when compared to other vehicles for the year.”

For example, the 2008 Buick Lucerne and Mercury Grand Marquis both earned five stars for driver protection in a frontal crash. But Gillis says the government’s tests show the driver of the Lucerne has a 5 percent chance of being killed while the driver of the Grand Marquis has a 10 percent chance. Using his new rating system, the Lucerne receives a “Best” rating for front crashes, while the Grand Marquis rates “Above average.”

“This empowers consumers in the marketplace. This information will move you to the safest possible car in the size class you’re interested in,” Gillis says.

My two cents
The current government rating system no longer helps consumers find the safest choices on the car lot. And because so many vehicles now get top marks, there’s no real marketplace incentive for manufacturers to design even safer vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to make its test more demanding and it needs to find a way to separate the best from the worst. I like Ditlow’s idea of using a 10-point rating system.

It has been a year since NHTSA announced it would improve the five-star rating program. The comment period was closed on April 10, 2007. So far, there is no proposal on the table. When can we expect one? NHTSA can’t say.

So for now, if you want your next vehicle to provide maximum safety, skip the stars. Use the information in “The Car Book” and check the results of crash tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Let’s hope NHTSA moves this important safety initiative into the fast lane.

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