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Public Citizen Urges NHTSA to Enhance Its New Car Assessment Program

March 7, 2007

Public Citizen Urges NHTSA to Enhance Its New Car Assessment Program

Testimony Details Program Changes Necessary for Keeping NCAP Relevant

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), originally launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1978, is long overdue for an update, according to testimony given today by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook before NHTSA and the Department of Transportation.

The program, which was introduced while Claybrook was head of NHTSA, provides consumers with information about vehicle performance under conditions that are more stringent than those used for safety standards and has been a model for similar programs initiated in other countries. However, programs in the European Union, Japan and Australia are now more comprehensive than NCAP, highlighting the need for NHTSA to modernize the program.

Although NHTSA’s January 2007 report, The New Car Assessment Program: Suggested Approaches for Future Program Enhancements, notes that NCAP must be updated in order to continue to motivate vehicle safety improvements, Claybrook testified that the agency’s planned updates do not go far enough.

When consumers purchase a vehicle, they want to know how it performs in various types of tests, not just the three now included in the NCAP program – front, side and rollover causation. The existing program does not include a dynamic (real-world) rollover crash test to determine a vehicle’s safety during a rollover crash. Claybrook’s testimony indicated that a rollover crash protection NCAP test is of great importance to consumers because rollover crashes represent more than 20 percent of highway fatalities. The number of rollover crashes has increased dramatically over the past several years, and NHTSA’s response to the rollover problem has been ineffective.


Claybrook also urged the agency to include in the updated NCAP an aggressivity standard that would provide consumers with information about the risks their vehicles pose to others on the roads and show the consequences of crashes between lighter and heavier vehicles.

“When a consumer chooses a vehicle, she is primarily concerned with the safety of an occupant in that vehicle but often does not consider the safety to occupants of other vehicles,” Claybrook said. “Occupants of vehicles are twice as likely to be injured or killed in side-impact crashes with SUVs as with other cars.”

Claybrook also offered suggestions for improving NCAP by rating child safety restraints, creating a pedestrian rating, rating vehicle performance in rear-impact crashes and adding an offset frontal crash test rating.

Claybrook’s testimony suggested that NHTSA use its authority to restructure NCAP so that manufacturers are required to test their vehicles before making them available for sale, ensuring that all new models have crash test ratings available on the window sticker and in the owner’s manual on the first day they are sold – changes that would be incredibly valuable to consumers in the process of buying a new vehicle. NHTSA would then randomly test vehicles to be sure the manufacturer’s rating is accurate and require a consumer notification if not.

This is particularly important in view of the implementation of the 2005 Stars on Cars Act, which requires vehicles available for purchase to have NHTSA’s five-star NCAP rating visible on the vehicle at the point of sale.

Claybrook highlighted the fact that the agency’s NCAP program is seriously under funded and also urged NHTSA to exchange NCAP’s current five-star rating system for a letter grade system using the letters A, B, C, D and F.

“While a consumer could mistakenly think that a three-star rating translates to a safe vehicle, a C rating would take away any chance of confusion,” Claybrook said. The letter grade system, she noted, would provide a greater incentive for manufacturers to strive for top safety ratings.

To read Claybrook’s testimony, click here.