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They’re speaking up about vehicle features and testing they’d like to see at a time when local governments are dealing with rising crashes on their streets.
City transportation officials don’t usually get a say on how vehicles are designed, even though the size and shape of cars and trucks play a big role in how safe local streets are. But now they have a chance to weigh in, and they’re asking for changes to make pedestrians and cyclists safer.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials is one of dozens of groups calling on the federal government to strengthen its criteria for awarding safety ratings to new cars, an issue that has gained more urgency as traffic deaths continue to climb. The group is asking for updates that would require major changes for many vehicles to keep their coveted four- or five-star ratings.
“Current vehicle standards and rating systems have failed to protect people outside of cars, especially in multimodal urban environments,” NACTO executive director Corinne Kisner wrote in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which the group provided to Route Fifty.
“The new rating system incorporates several long-overdue technological changes but misses opportunities to address the outsized roles that vehicle speed, size, weight and visibility from the driver’s seat play in determining safety outcomes,” she wrote.
The federal safety administration outlined its plans in March to update its crash-test ratings. Those plans come in response to requirements from Congress for NHTSA to rate vehicles on four specific kinds of crash avoidance technology for the first time: forward collision and lane departure warnings, automated emergency braking, and lane-keeping systems.
Congress also told NHTSA to make plans for how to protect users outside of a vehicle—like pedestrians or cyclists—as it designs future safety tests. Lawmakers included those changes in the recently passed infrastructure funding law.
NHTSA said in March that it would develop tests as part of that program for automatic emergency braking meant to keep vehicles from hitting pedestrians, a development hailed by safety advocates.
But city transportation officials and a cyclist advocacy group urged the agency to be more ambitious when rolling out other safety improvements.
NACTO, for example, urged the federal regulators to ensure that vehicles scored highly in four additional categories in order to get a five-star rating.
Their proposals seek to counter the safety hazards posed by the increased size and weight of new vehicles over the last decade, which many experts say has contributed to the rising death toll from traffic crashes.
The city officials encouraged the federal regulators to:
- Make sure that the crash avoidance technology works in all kinds of scenarios. For example, systems that automatically detect and brake for pedestrians perform better in daylight than in the dark. Some have struggled to detect people with darker skin, pedestrians in groups or walkers carrying objects. Meanwhile, some lane detection systems have steered cars dangerously close to cyclists in adjacent lanes.
- Only give top ratings to vehicles that lower their speeds when they exceed the posted speed limit, a technology that has been rolled out in Europe.
- Use small, or child-size, dummies when determining how well a vehicle protects pedestrians. The tests would “produce radically different results” if they assumed the pedestrian was a four-foot-tall child instead of a six-foot-tall adult, Kisner wrote in the letter. “Designing test criteria built around the smaller-than-average person will result in increased safety for everyone,” she said.
- Include the size of a vehicle’s blind spots for drivers in their safety calculations. Bigger vehicles have bigger blind spots, which even mirrors or cameras cannot completely mitigate. One recent study found that pick-up drivers are four times more likely, and SUV drivers are twice as likely, to cause a fatal crash with a pedestrian while turning than car drivers, NACTO noted in its letter.
Updating the testing criteria would not require automakers to make changes to their vehicles. But the test ratings are so influential they do factor into manufacturers’ decisions, according to Sindhu Bharadwaj, NACTO’s program manager of policy, in an interview.
“Even though it’s an indirect regulation, we know that many car companies make an effort to comply with it, so it maximizes safety outcomes,” Bharadwaj said. She said that the group would also push for more stringent regulations that vehicle manufacturers would have to comply with when NHTSA develops those.
“Consumer education is really important, but direct regulation by updating the fundamental safety standards is more powerful,” she said.
The League of American Bicyclists and its members are also urging NHTSA to impose more stringent tests for its safety rating system of new vehicles. Currently, the group’s focus is on incorporating technology that would help vehicles detect cyclists and prevent collisions with them, said Ken McLeod, the group’s policy director.
For now, NHTSA has indicated it won’t include those kinds of tests until 2025, but the cyclists say that’s too long to wait.
McLeod noted that European auto regulators have been testing vehicles for their ability to avoid crashes with cyclists since 2018. Third party vendors have developed nonproprietary dummies that regulators could use to scrutinize those systems, he added.
“We don’t see any reason why Europe tests for this kind of technology, but the United States can’t,” he said. “We’re the country that created the new car assessment program. And unfortunately, we’ve just fallen behind as other countries have surpassed us.”
Research suggests that cyclist detection systems can lead to huge improvements in cyclist safety, addressing 50% to 80% of the scenarios where cyclists are killed, McLeod said. Although the mechanisms vary, the systems use cameras, radar or even lidar to detect cyclists and then automatically brake to avoid crashes with them.
McLeod said the cyclist group was worried about the design of newer vehicles, particularly their bigger size and visibility issues. But he said the league was waiting to raise those issues with NHTSA later this year, when the regulator said it would explore new rules about pedestrian crashworthiness.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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