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Feds Propose ‘Automatic Braking’ Rule — But It’s Not Strong Enough, Advocates Warn

An aggressive new federal safety rule would eventually require automakers to install on new cars technology that can detect pedestrians and stop crashes before they happen — but there remain several key flaws in the proposal, advocates and experts said.

An aggressive new federal safety rule would eventually require automakers to install on new cars technology that can detect pedestrians and stop crashes before they happen — but there remain several key flaws in the proposal, advocates and experts said.

On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a new motor vehicle safety standard that would require automakers to install automatic emergency braking systems on all new passenger cars, trucks and SUVs within three years, and set tougher standards for how well those systems must function, particularly when confronted with a pedestrian. (Though not necessarily a cyclist — more on that later)

Thanks to a 2015 voluntary commitment among automakers, nearly all new cars sold in the U.S. today already come with automatic emergency braking systems, but those systems don't always work at the ultra-high speeds at which many fatal crashes occur — and they can't always detect the presence of a vulnerable road user, particularly on roads without streetlights after dark, where today's systems prevent virtually no crashes at all.

The new rule, by contrast, would put pressure on car manufacturers to rapidly improve their AEB offerings by "requiring all cars to be able to stop and avoid contact with a vehicle in front of them up to 62 miles per hour" and "recognize and avoid pedestrians at night,” said NHTSA Chief Counsel Ann Carlson.

If those critical details gain the force of law, they would significantly exceed the bare minimum AEB standards regulators were required to implement under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — and, hopefully, transform pedestrian-detection systems from a pricey driver convenience feature into a standard-issue safety feature as ubiquitous as the seatbelt.

“Crash-avoidance systems should be standard, not a perk for the wealthy," Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in a statement. "We urge the administration to complete this proceeding without delay." 

Safety advocates applauded NHTSA's news — though pointed out several important caveats.

For one, proponents of non-automotive transportation said the new rule would not require AEB systems to be tested specifically for their ability to prevent crashes with bicyclists, despite the fact that a similar rule now in effect in Europedid require regulators to consider the safety of people on two wheels.

"As people who bike, walk, and drive, bicyclists should welcome NHTSA's proposed AEB rule because it will save lives," said Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists. "But for bicyclists specifically, the proposed rule is another example of not actually being included in vehicle safety testing."

Second, bicyclist detection wasn't the only feature that NHTSA chose to leave out of its new crash avoidance rule. The law that made AEB standard across European cars last year also required a package of other technologies, including automatic lane-keeping tech to prevent drivers from swerving into oncoming traffic, driver drowsiness and distraction recognition systems, and anti-speeding technology that prompts motorists to hit the brakes when they're exceeding the local limit.

The latter is particularly important in light of the fact that pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems can't be reliably tested at speeds above 37.5 miles per hour — just under the 40 mile per hour threshold at which more than 50 percent of pedestrians are killed when struck.

“This is the type of critical step that advocates want to see in response to the dramatic increase in pedestrian deaths," said Mike McGinn, executive director of America Walks. "We still have a long way to go to catch up to European standards (like intelligent speed assistance for example), but this rule, if enacted, will help save lives.”

Third, advocates stressed that the types of crashes that AEB systems are able to prevent are limited mostly to rear-end and head-on collisions with other road users, and that safety professionals will need to be vigilant lest drivers surrender to "automation complacency" when they believe their tech can do more than it actually can. Today's systems still struggle to prevent T-bone and left-turn collisions, which cause just under 40 percent of deaths on the road, and sometimes have difficulty detecting impending crashes in bad weather.

Take all that together with the fact that the new tech will only filter into the vehicle fleet when drivers replace their cars with new ones — something Americans are doing increasingly less often as vehicle prices skyrocket — and NHTSA estimates that only 360 lives per year would be saved by the new rule, albeit with a significantly larger number of avoided injuries (24,000).

And that's only after the rule goes into effect — which, again, will take years even if regulators don't drag their feet.

"We can’t depend entirely on technology," stressed David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for highway Safety. "With people keeping their cars longer, it will be several decades before at least 90 percent of vehicles on the road are equipped with pedestrian AEB. We also need states and local jurisdictions to act quickly to improve pedestrian infrastructure and lower vehicle speeds, which can pay safety dividends much faster.”

We'd add one more need to that important list: we also need NHTSA to take action to simply make the cars smaller, so even if their automatic emergency braking systems fail, they'll be less likely to kill someone.

The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration was unable to offer comment for this story. 

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