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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering taking into account a car’s danger to people outside the car in its safety ratings, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is urging it to make these changes.
In a letter to the NHTSA dated June 2, Wu argues that a new car should not be able to receive a five-star safety rating from the NHTSA if it does not score highly on pedestrian safety features, such as driver assistance systems, direct visibility, and speed assistance systems that limit unsafe speeds.
“In Boston, where the majority of residents’ work trips involve walking for a portion or all of their journey, we are grateful that NHTSA is exploring how to protect people outside of the vehicle as well as inside,” Wu wrote.
Wu’s letter is in response to a decision in early March by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to ask for public input on the NHTSA’s proposals for updates to the five-star safety rating system for new cars, called the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP.
Among those proposals is the potential inclusion of advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) features, such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, and lane-keep assistance, in its evaluation of a new car’s safety.
The proposal is notable because these features are largely meant to protect the lives of people outside of a car. In the NHTSA’s 52-year history, it has only ever considered the safety of people inside the car in its safety ratings, according to street safety advocate website StreetsBlog.
In this way, StreetsBlog reported, despite pioneering car safety with the creation of the NHTSA, the United States has fallen behind Europe.
In 2010, the European Union introduced new auto safety standards meant to decrease pedestrian fatalities and injuries. These rules called for standards such as higher hoods to reduce head trauma and crash tests that evaluate front-end impacts with pedestrians.
In 2012, late consumer advocate Clarence Ditlow told Automotive News that he believed the NHTSA was reluctant to regulate on pedestrian safety because it would have a major effect on how cars look.
StreetsBlog also reported that David Zuby, chief research officer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), believes one reason the NHTSA might not want to consider pedestrian safety in its safety ratings is that it could greatly decrease safety ratings for SUVs and pick-up trucks.
According to Statista, crossover-style SUVs and pick-up trucks were the two most popular types of cars in the United States, making up about 46% and 18% of the market share in 2021, respectively.
In her letter, Wu even cites a March 2022 report by the IIHS that concluded that “[Light truck vehicles, such as SUVs, pick-up trucks, and vans] were more likely to be involved in certain pedestrian crash types, implying a potentially problematic visibility of pedestrians near the front corners of these vehicles.”
StreetsBlog reported that this isn’t the first time that the NHTSA has considered adding pedestrian safety considerations to its vehicle safety ratings.
In 2015, StreetsBlog wrote, the agency wrote on its website that it was considering incorporating some of the international pedestrian safety standards into its vehicle safety ratings.
The change wouldn’t have required carmakers to change anything about their cars, StreetsBlog wrote, but some pedestrian safety metrics would be considered in the NHTSA ratings, and automakers are highly motivated to score well on these ratings.
But, StreetsBlog wrote, this disappeared from the NHTSA’s website after President Donald Trump took office.
In her letter, Wu cites a statistic from the IIHS which says that though pedestrian deaths decreased steadily nationwide between 1975 and 2009, since that low point, they have increased by 59%.
While Wu clarifies that pedestrian deaths in Boston did not increase that dramatically in the last 13 years, she warns that pedestrian fatalities in Boston could increase in the coming years as electric vehicles bring heavier curb weights and faster acceleration to the city’s streets.
“The City of Boston is encouraged to see NHTSA take the crucial step of incorporating safety features that protect people outside of vehicles into NCAP. However, the proposed changes to the Program can go further,” Wu wrote in her letter.
Wu’s suggestion to the NHTSA is simple: don’t allow cars to be given a high safety rating unless they score highly on pedestrian safety metrics. She also includes a list of car safety categories that she suggests they make essential for earning a high safety rating.
Firstly, she writes, new cars should have ample and reliable ADAS features, such as blind spot detection and intervention, lane keeping support, and automatic emergency braking, to receive a high safety score.
Secondly, Wu advises, safety scores should take into account the likelihood of a pedestrian dying or being seriously injured in a crash.
Thirdly, she writes, safety scores should take into account the “direct vision” of a driver from the driver’s seat — i.e. what a driver can see without mirrors, cameras, and sensors.
“Cameras, mirrors, sensors, and other ADAS features cannot replace the need for direct sight,” she writes. “Large vehicles, such as SUVs, light trucks, and heavy trucks, have large blind spots and visibility problems, which are directly connected to decreased safety and increases in fatalities.”
Lastly, Wu advises, new cars should have intelligent speed assistance systems that automatically limit unsafe speeds if they are to receive a high safety rating.
“Vehicle speed plays a critical role in determining the likelihood and severity of traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Crashes are more likely to occur as a driver’s speed increases, as does the likelihood of a crash being fatal,” she writes.
“Intelligent speed assistance (ISA) is a tool proven to reduce speed-related crashes and fatalities.”
Public comments on the proposals closed June 8, but those concerned about car safety can still write to the NHTSA with feedback on its website.
“The City of Boston greatly appreciates NHTSA’s consideration of these comments and ensuring that consumers have the necessary information needed to make decisions,” Wu writes, ending her letter.
“…NHTSA can do more to leverage NCAP and ensure consumers have a comprehensive understanding of vehicle safety.”
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