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GAO Report Confirms That Government Crash Test Program Is Out of Date

April 28, 2005

GAO Report Confirms That Government Crash Test Program Is Out of Date

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today underscores what many of us know: that the government’s innovative crash test program is out of date and needs to be revamped and updated. The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) is run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and was created 25 years ago. At the time it was considered a huge advance in highway safety.

But times have changed. As highlighted in the report, the tests now fall short. They don’t consider the propensity of vehicle roofs to crush during rollover crashes or test vehicle compatibility. They use only male crash test dummies, omitting women and children from test results. They don’t test how vehicles respond when hitting pedestrians or when the corner of a vehicle is involved in a crash. More important, they don’t take into account the huge increase in SUVs on the highways. The government could do this by using a higher and heavier barrier for crash tests, rather than one that is the height of a compact vehicle. The four- and five-star test ratings thus in some cases mislead consumers. This is crucial, considering that preliminary figures released last week showed that SUV fatalities increased 4.9 percent between 2003 and 2004. Other countries are more thorough in analyzing how vehicles perform in crash tests, taking into account not only measured test results but also deadly vehicle intrusion. There is no reason we can’t too.

Further, the NCAP ratings are not available to consumers on a timely basis. By the time the information for a particular model year is made available by the DOT, millions of the tested vehicles have been sold.

One way to improve the program would be to beef up the tests and require the auto industry to conduct and certify them before any new vehicle is sold. (Manufacturers already conduct these tests but keep the results secret.) NHTSA should then check the results through random testing. And this information should be available to consumers on the window sticker at the point of sale – a measure that is included in legislative language proposed by U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) in the pending highway bill.

Finally, the star system could be more meaningful to consumers using letters “A” through “F.”

For the sake of everyone who travels on our highways, we should bring this crash test program up to date and once again make it a model for others to follow.