NHTSA requests public input like it matters
Whenever I see that some federal agency is "requesting comment" on some proposed rule change, I tend to half-ignore it. I generally assume that whatever the topic, all the extremely learned experts will soon be weighing in with research results and finely-tuned analysis and insights developed over the span of a thirty-year career. Why would they need my input? I'm just a layperson—a layperson who really loves going on and on about what she thinks, but contrary to how it may appear, I don't really believe that's a qualification. Besides, anything I said would no doubt be lost among the hundreds of highly-informed contributions the agency would receive.
So when I saw that the US National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) was requesting comment on its proposed new safety testing procedures
, I was interested to see what they're proposing, but it didn't occur to me to chime in. I mean, the safety experts and automotive engineers must be all over this, right?
After all, these are pretty important changes that NHTSA is talking about. They're looking at the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP)—the program that determines how newly built cars will be rated for safety. This program is responsible for introducing the use of crash test dummies in safety testing and devising new kinds of tests to simulate all kinds of crashes a car might get into. It introduced rollover safety ratings, side-pole-crash tests, tire blowout simulations—all that exciting stuff. So when you look up a car on the Web and find out that it's pretty safe in a head-on collision, but in the case of a T-bone you might as well be riding in a lunchbox—it's thanks to the NCAP that you know that. (They don't really use the lunchbox rating, but they should consider it. Visceral, don't you think?)
The proposed changes include a detailed consideration of new safety technologies. Many of the new crash avoidance technologies we've been hearing about are included. There's a section on new crash warning technologies: radar-assisted blind spot detection systems and advanced lighting systems. The report also looks at crash intervention systems: what they call "lane departure prevention," braking assistance systems, and automatic pedestrian detection and braking technologies.
The proposed changes also include new crash notification systems. These automatically contact the nearest emergency station right after a crash and transmit not only that the crash has happened, but the likelihood of severe injury based on whether there was a rollover, as well as the number, direction, and severity of "impact events" (got to love that euphemism). Finally, there are proposed changes to "crashworthiness areas" that haven't received as much attention until now, primarily the safety of rear seat passengers in different kinds of crashes, and at how best to provide information to consumers about safety ratings.
There's also a new kind of customer-specific, or passenger-specific, rating system under consideration: a "silver car rating system" that would look specifically at the needs of older occupants, the idea being that older drivers could use this rating to figure out which cars might be safer for them. As an example, the document suggests that "technologies that help prevent low speed pedal misapplication may have potential benefits for older occupants." Come on, NHTSA, out with it—aren't you really saying: no offense, gramps, but this one here's the gas and the other one's the brake, keep 'em straight, okay?
All in all, this is pretty important stuff. I don't know about you, but if all of these crash-avoidance things are going to become common and eventually standard in most cars, I want to know how well they work and whether they actually deliver safety benefits. Especially the technologies that go beyond warning and notification into actually taking over the job of avoiding or mitigating the crash. If my car is going to decide that it knows better than I do how to drive, I'd like some independent verification of that before I put my life in its hands.
So I wasn't surprised when I saw that NHTSA apparently has pretty high expectations for the comments it's seeking. There's a whole section where they lay out what they're looking for: for each area of study under consideration, is there a safety need and benefit? Are there technologies that can address the safety need? Are there objective tests that can measure the benefit and assess how well the technologies are performing? And finally, is there research to support incorporating this area into the New Car Assessment Program?
The comments section is open until July 5, so what the heck—head on over there and tell them what you think. Even if you aren't an expert.