Football and Vehicle Safety Ratings

 In Vehicle Safety

What Football Can Teach Us About Vehicle Safety Ratings

Football players expect helmet makers to keep up with the times – and keep them safe. And I think car buyers need to do the same with our country’s outdated vehicle safety ratings system.

In the 1970’s, the sporting equipment company, Riddell, revolutionized the football game by introducing vinyl pads inside the helmet. As a ready-made airbag, a pad could be inflated to absorb impact. Today, Riddell boasts that they used over 2 million real on-the-field data points to design their current helmets.

In 40 years, our cars have improved as well. The biggest safety equipment innovations of the last century, the three-point safety belts and airbags, required strong leadership and revolutionary thinking on the part of our federal government. But things are different now.

Vehicle Safety Pioneer Sounds Alarm

One of the pioneers leading the charge in the consumer-orientated 1970’s was Joan Claybrook. Under her leadership, the federal government created the revolutionary New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP. That system of crashing new cars in a laboratory with dummies evolved into the federal 5-star NHTSA safety rating system in the 1990’s. By pointing consumers to cars that earned 4 and 5 stars, the federal program nudged the automotive industry into making safer cars. Undoubtedly, that program has saved countless lives.

Forty years later, the pioneer of that program is sounding the alarm. Ms. Claybrook and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety issued a scathing report in October that scolded our government for abdicating leadership in vehicle safety ratings systems. Whereas in the 1970’s we led the world and provided a blueprint for a rating system for countries around the globe, we now rank far behind Europe, Asia and Latin America. Europe, for example, has 4 times as many tests for rating cars than we do.

NCAP Ignores Key Car Safety Tests

What kinds of tests does NCAP ignore? For example, we could be testing new technologies for pedestrian detection, but we don’t. NCAP could, but doesn’t, evaluate driver assistance systems, e.g., forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warnings. The voluntary commitment of automotive companies to make low speed automatic emergency braking with forward collision warning standard in 2022 models is just a little too late, given that the technology has been around for over 20 years.

For a few years now, our federal government has been promising the addition of new test procedures, rating of technologies and the addition of new crash-test dummies to better represent drivers and passengers. But, as Claybrook points out, any substantive changes will require the right funding and political will.

Align Reforms with Consumer Expectations

As modern-day consumers, we should once again thank Ms. Claybrook for her commitment to our common welfare. But, even if the reforms do succeed, I believe these changes still won’t be enough to bring NCAP into the modern era of car safety. That’s because NCAP intends to keep relying on controlled crash tests with plastic dummies, and not real crash data.

Remember today’s football helmet? It uses over 2 million data points from on-field impacts. That’s real data – and real innovation – the kind that we, as modern consumers, demand.

You may be wondering, “if only there were a database with the same richness of real information about U.S. car crashes …”

News alert: that database exists. It’s called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a government database of all fatal crashes on U.S. roads. Your taxes have been funding this massive data collection program since 1975.

Anyone can access this data, but it’s not easy to understand for the typical consumer. It’s only really accessible to researchers in government, the auto industry, and academics like me, who routinely mine this information.

Use Real Data to Protect Real Families

If you worked for NHTSA and had this data about how cars perform in real crashes with real people inside, why wouldn’t you use it instead of or in addition to controlled lab tests with dummies? That’s just common sense to me. Relying only on crash testing to rate car safety seems out of touch with, well, reality.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Suppose a drug has been in the market for three years. Would you only rely on information about its clinical trials? Wouldn’t you want to know how effective it has been over the past three years with people in the general population?

Today, we, as consumers, crave real information. That’s true whether we’re counting calories, logging steps, choosing a football helmet, or buying a car.

Safety advocates like Claybrook are urging NHTSA safety ratings to keep up with the times – and the world. They want more crashes with a wider variety of plastic dummies. I applaud their dedication and tenacity.

I also think that it’s time to do something revolutionary. Yes, test the h____ out of new cars. Make these tests and ratings more realistic. And, once these cars hit the marketplace, use real on-the-road experience to rate how well these cars have protected real people in real crashes. The data exists. What’s missing is the leadership.

(This article appeared as a Guest Writer column in Ahwatukee Foothill News on February 6, 2020. A shorter version of this article appeared in The Arizona Republic newspaper, part of the USA Today network, Opinion Contributor
Are new cars really as safe as we think? The feds aren’t doing much to find out on February 3.)

Working together to create a world where everyone walks away from a crash.