New Tests, New Crash Dummies, And More Changes In Store At NHTSA

December 31, 2015

The past couple of years have not been kind to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but it appears NHTSA has learned from its mistakes and is making a concerted effort to do better in the future.

NHTSA has always been a scapegoat for automakers and elected officials, but recently, two headline-grabbing recalls -- one involving General Motors' ignition switches, the other involving Takata's deadly airbags -- made things far, far worse. As those scandals unfolded, it became painfully clear that, like many government agencies, NHTSA was hobbled by bureaucracy, unable to do its work effectively.

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Thankfully, NHTSA was listening, and it's making some changes. The most important of those changes is an improved rating system for new vehicles that should set the safety bar higher for automakers and give consumers more info about possible purchases. The upgraded system will include:

  • Five-star safety ratings that assess crash-avoidance, pedestrian-detection, and other high-tech safety systems;
  • Half-star grading options, which will provide more nuanced ratings for consumers; 
  • A completely new test -- the frontal oblique crash test -- designed to assess how vehicles perform in angled collisions;
  • Improvements to the full frontal barrier crash test, which will offer greater detail on how safety systems protect rear-seat passengers;
  • New crash test dummies that can generate additional data on how well (or poorly) safety systems protect occupants during collisions;
  • New tests to determine how well pedestrians are protected when struck by vehicles;

But perhaps NHTSA's most important improvement is the ability to roll out even more changes to its ratings program in the future. NHTSA says that it plans to implement changes that provide "[t]he ability to dynamically update the program more swiftly as new safety technologies emerge."

As exciting (and overdue) as these improvements may be, though, don't expect to see them implemented tomorrow. Like many federal, state, and local agencies, NHTSA will take public comments on the proposed upgrades -- in this case, for two months. The changes will be finalized by the end of 2016 and hopefully be implemented in time to rate 2019 vehicles.

If you'd like to see a complete copy of NHTSA's proposed changes, check out this PDF.

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