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Advocates: It’s Time To Tell NHTSA to Make Cars Safer For Walkers

Photo: Pxhere, CC

Editor's note: a version of this article originally appeared on America Walks and is republished with permission.

It’s well known by now: Vehicles in the U.S. are getting bigger, more angry-looking, and more dangerous to pedestrians. And it’s leading to near record high pedestrian deaths.

But for the first time in U.S. history, federal regulators are taking steps to help ensure vehicles are safer for those outside cars. A new rule making from NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) would finally begin rating cars — on the five-star scale — for impacts to pedestrians.

New crash avoidance technologies — like automatic emergency braking — that have major potential to reduce deaths and injuries will be subject to testing and in some cases mandated. And issues such as hood and bumper design, speed limiters, blind spot detection, and more are up for discussion.

The full request for comment covers more issues than we can unpack here, but we can give you the high points so you can start engaging the process now. If you want more information, please sign up for our next webinar with vehicle safety experts.

NHTSA’s process calls for comments by May 9th, and there is a request for an extension of time to comment from major vehicle safety advocates.  We will keep you posted. In the meantime, here are a few important aspects of this complex issue and how you can comment.

How much can NHTSA actually do?

NHTSA can require safety improvements to vehicles and incorporate them into the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. Think airbags — a feature that was once optional equipment but that’s now not only mandated on all new cars, it would be unthinkable to create a car without them.

NHTSA also publishes a five-star rating pursuant to NCAP, the New Car Assessment Program. Pertinent information on safety features is shared with consumers online or at the point of the sale on something called “the Monroney label.” It’s essentially an encouragement to automakers to incorporate the standard because presumably, consumers will reward automakers with better safety standards.

Unfortunately, under the current rating system, almost every new vehicle gets four- or five-star ratings, as NCAP has not kept up with the times. Nor are the standards as high as those of European NCAP which already looks at pedestrian safety and includes life-saving features like active hoods, built to cushion the blow when a pedestrian is struck.

The request for comment from NHTSA asks for input on the NCAP roadmap, but it also sets the stage for new vehicle requirements as both safety ratings and vehicle requirements can proceed in parallel. The rulemaking process will likely be long and bumpy. Indeed some of these issues were raised in the Obama Administration in 2015 before being deep-sixed in the Trump Administration. So buckle up for the long haul. This is just the roadmap, not the final decisions.

So what’s in it? (Get ready for acronyms.)

Here are the major elements:

NHTSA Proposes to add four new Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS technologies) to the vehicle rating system. This is sensor technology that can prevent crashes from occurring before they happen, even if the driver is inattentive:

    • Forward collision warning (FCW)
    • Lane departure warning (LDW)
    • And automatic emergency braking (AEB)

This notice also describes and proposes four more automated technologies to be incorporated into the vehicle rating system:

    • blind spot detection
    • blind spot intervention
    • lane keeping support
    • and pedestrian automatic emergency braking

It is critical that these technologies are designed and tested to protect people outside of cars. There is also a question whether these should be simply incorporated into ratings, or should be required as standard equipment. The problem of blind spots is made particularly worse by oversize passenger vehicles.

NHTSA will also need to adopt new “performance standards.” In other words, how well does the technology actually protect people outside of cars? That may mean that well known “crash test dummies” will now also be used outside of cars for the first time, as vehicles go through their paces to see how well they detect pedestrians in various situations and take corrective action automatically.  Or how vehicle design can reduce impact on pedestrians.

What about those massive vehicles?

NHTSA will also look at “hood and bumper design” – critical to addressing the brutality that giant grilles and bull bars can inflict on people, but since it does not explicitly call out size and weight, some are questioning the commitment of NHTSA to really take on the behemoths ruling the road.

Here’s the language from the NCAP 10 year road map for 2021- 2022

“NHTSA plans to propose a crashworthiness pedestrian protection testing program in NCAP in 2022. The pedestrian protection program would incorporate three crashworthiness tests (i.e., head-to-hood, upper leg-to-hood leading edge, and lower leg-to-bumper) discussed in the December 2015 RFC.225 A crashworthiness pedestrian protection testing program would measure how well passenger cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles protect pedestrians in the event of a crash. The program would further complement the safety achieved by pedestrian automatic emergency braking by measuring the safety performance of new vehicles to pedestrian impacts and encouraging safer vehicle designs for pedestrians.”

Notably, pedestrians, as used here, does not seem to include people on bikes and that is a fixable flaw in the program.

Speed Limiters are on the table

Safety requires taming excessive speed. We know that enforcement often fails, and carries its own history of tragic bias. Better road designs are essential, but why not use modern technology to reduce vehicle speed in critical areas like school zones or busy pedestrian areas? NHTSA is asking the question.

“Should NHTSA take into consideration systems, such as intelligent speed assist systems, which determine current speed limits and warn the driver or adjust the maximum traveling speed accordingly?”
Our answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to mash the accelerator in a school zone. We already use GPS and speed limiters on shared scooters and electric bikes for safety reasons. And European NCAP requires all new cars to be outfitted with speed limiters.

Get Engaged

Please contact NHTSA and let them know what you think. This is a welcome and long overdue development and given the scope of the pedestrian safety crisis, this is no time for half-measures.

Our message now is:

    • Thank you for taking up the safety of vehicles for pedestrians!
    • Prioritize pedestrian safety with every tool at your disposal.
    • Incorporate equity by ensuring automatic detection systems and performance standards account for people of different ages, genders, skin color, and means of mobility outside of cars.
    • Require safer vehicles and adopt standards to limit their excessive size, blunt front hoods, and dangerous bumpers
    • The privilege of driving fast does not override the right to move without fear outside of cars. Implement speed limiters where appropriate.
    • Move quickly; too many people are dying.

Join us at our webinar to learn more about the issues and how you can further engage and be sure to catch the wrap-up from our April webinar by visiting our blog.

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