This truck model family receives 4 and 5-star NCAP safety ratings
despite its danger to pedestrians. Photo credit: Angie Schmitt
Oversized vehicles are making U.S. streets deadlier for pedestrians and bike riders. New federal regulations could save lives–but the proposed changes still let automakers off the hook.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) joined local governments and national organizations from across the United States to call on the U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT) to stop giving 5-star safety ratings to the vehicles most likely to kill pedestrians and cyclists.
Pedestrian deaths on U.S. streets are at a 40-year high, with over 7,000 pedestrians killed by drivers each year, an increase of over 50% since 2009. Vehicle design plays a crucial role in this crisis: vehicles are getting bigger and heavier, higher off the ground, and with worse driver sightlines. But under the federal government’s safety rating system, known as the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), nearly every vehicle gets four- or five-star safety ratings. That’s because the system only considers the safety of those within cars, not outside them, resulting in thousands of preventable deaths each year.
After NACTO and thousands of concerned residents, safety experts, cities, and organizations called on USDOT last year to reform the program so customers have accurate information on the safety of vehicles that they purchase, the agency proposed the inclusion of an optional pedestrian crashworthiness test within NCAP. While this proposal is a step in the right direction, it still lets automakers off the hook for designing dangerous vehicles.
The proposed pedestrian test isn’t included in the vehicle’s final safety rating, which means vehicles that perform poorly can still receive 5-star overall safety ratings. The test would also be conducted by car manufacturers themselves, and since it’s voluntary, automakers can skip it entirely. And even when automakers do conduct the test, the critical results of it will only be published as a footnote on an obscure website, leaving consumers largely uninformed.
NCAP can go further in other ways: USDOT still needs to incorporate life-saving vehicular features into its ratings, including Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and Direct Vision standards that can prevent bicyclist and pedestrian-involved crashes altogether.
To ensure vehicles are truly safe and consumers are informed, NACTO and partners have called on USDOT to reform NCAP to:
- Provide consumers with transparent information about how well a vehicle performs on the pedestrian crashworthiness test.
- Mandate that any vehicle that receives a failing grade for pedestrian crashworthiness be ineligible for an overall 5-star vehicle safety rating.
- Adopt a 5-star scoring system for pedestrian crashworthiness, rather than a pass/fail system.
- Compare vehicles across weights and classes to reflect the disproportionate risk that height and weight pose in crashes with people outside of the vehicle.
- Base the final score not solely on the ability to mitigate risk for the vehicle’s occupants, but the ability to reduce risk to the surrounding environment, including people walking and biking.
- Maintain crash test consistency by having NHTSA conduct the crashworthiness test, rather than allowing manufacturers to self-report results.
- Incorporate the results of the pedestrian crashworthiness test on the Monroney Label, which car dealers must present at the point of sale.
- Adopt additional components into the pedestrian crashworthiness test to account for a broader range of road users and likely crash scenarios.
- Evaluate pedestrian crashworthiness at speeds higher than 25 mph in addition to speeds at or below 25 mph.
- Incorporate people on bikes into the pedestrian crashworthiness test. People on bikes are currently incorporated into testing by the European equivalent of NCAP, emphasizing the “cyclist zone” of the vehicle at the top of the windshield due to the height of cyclists. Recent research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests taller vehicles are more likely to knock bicyclists down, resulting in different crash dynamics and higher injury severity from secondary impacts.
- Incorporate information about vehicle safety features–like ADAS and direct vision–that are proven to protect people outside of vehicles into the rating system, and ensure no vehicle receives a 5-star rating if it doesn’t include those features.
“The national traffic safety crisis requires us to use every tool at our disposal,” said Corinne Kisner, Executive Director of NACTO. “Cities are redesigning their streets for safety, but we need all levels of government to do their part to stem record-high pedestrian traffic deaths. With NCAP, USDOT has a crucial opportunity and obligation to prioritize safety and give consumers the information that they need to choose safer vehicles for everyone on our streets.”
“The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) was initiated to give consumers information about the safety of new cars so they could make informed purchasing decisions. But it doesn’t work if every car is given a top safety rating even if it does not protect all road users including pedestrians and cyclists,” said Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA Administrator. “I worked on creating NCAP while serving as Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during President Carter’s Administration. Our intent was to drive manufacturers to exceed minimum safety standards and help stem the tide of deaths and injuries on our roadways. NCAP began as a world standard but has not maintained this status. Over time, Europe and other countries have leaped miles ahead. NHTSA must make desperately needed updates to NCAP including rating pedestrian safety. There’s no time to waste.”
“We appreciate NHTSA’s renewed focus on pedestrians—our most vulnerable road user—but the pedestrian safety crisis demands that NHTSA must go further,” said Fred Kelley, Director of the Oakland Department of Transportation. “While Oakland is making unprecedented transportation investments in our Black and Brown neighborhoods to undo decades of disinvestment and eliminate racial inequities in traffic safety outcomes, we look to our federal partners to join us in this fight and urge them to adopt stronger pedestrian safety standards.”
“Driving too fast is a major cause of deadly injuries. The City of Columbus is focused on reducing speeds and prioritizing safety for all who use our transportation system through approaches that include improved roadway engineering. Yet, these efforts are hampered by the weight of individual vehicles using city streets,” said Jennifer Gallagher, Director of the City of Columbus’ Public Service Department. “Our efforts to reduce speeds will not be as effective if vehicles keep getting heavier without considering crash impact and the safety of pedestrians. NHTSA has the authority to encourage the car industry to make critical changes in vehicle design and production that prioritize the safety of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.”
“In 2022, San José experienced its deadliest year of traffic deaths on record – 65 people killed, with more than half of those people killed by being hit by a vehicle while walking or biking,” said San José Director of Transportation John Ristow. “USDOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy explicitly calls for safer vehicles. It is time for NHTSA to strengthen NCAP to respond to the tragedies we face too often on our roads across the country every day.”
“No vehicle should have a five-star safety rating if it doesn’t have features designed to protect people on foot and bike,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief of Streets for the City of Boston. “As we work every day to design and build safer streets in Boston, we need our partners in the Federal Government to do more to protect people both inside and outside of vehicles.”
“Milwaukee, like most of America, is suffering from a traffic safety crisis with a 58% increase in people dying in traffic from 2013-2020,” said Kevin Muhs, City Engineer for the City of Milwaukee. “The City is making unprecedented investments to make streets safer and reach zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2037. To end traffic deaths, all levels of government must act. Milwaukee urges NHTSA to ensure that the 5 star rating system continues to mean that the highest level of safety is achieved for people both inside and outside of cars so that we can save lives together.”
“In 2022, 63 people were killed traveling in Portland–the highest number of traffic deaths in three decades. Over half of those people were walking and biking,” said Tara Wasiak, Interim Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “Portland is using every tool at our disposal to build safer, slower streets and create a culture of shared responsibility. We need NHTSA to do their part to improve vehicle safety, including strengthening NCAP and factoring pedestrian crashworthiness tests into overall vehicle safety ratings.”
“The City of Vancouver’s Community Development Department is committed to the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and serious injuries on our streets,” said Rebecca Kennedy, Deputy Director of Vancouver, Washington’s Community Development Department. “Reforming the NCAP rating system to support more safety for vulnerable road users outside of the vehicle, in addition to passengers inside, is a priority for the City of Vancouver. As we work with our local and regional partners to design and build safer streets and roads, we need the NHTSA at the federal level to protect vulnerable road users to achieve our vision of a more equitable, sustainable and safe community.”
“US streets are more dangerous than they have been in decades,” said Tom Maguire, Director of Streets, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). “While cities like San Francisco are doing everything we can to eliminate traffic fatalities, we desperately need the federal government to do its part. We’re encouraged by the proposed changes to incorporate safety features that protect pedestrians into the New Car Assessment Program. But they need to be strengthened. We can’t continue to allow thousands of preventable deaths on America’s streets every year.”
“Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, having increased nearly 20 percent from 2019 (pre-pandemic) to 2021. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point, and taking a walk should not turn into a death sentence,” said Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is in a unique position to effectuate change by including a robust crashworthiness pedestrian protection program in the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), also known as ‘Stars on Cars.’ By any measure, NCAP has been exceedingly successful in informing consumers, but its effectiveness has degraded over the years due to a lack of substantial upgrades. We urge NHTSA to course correct its most recent proposal, which lacks several commonsense advances, to ensure NCAP will meaningfully improve pedestrian safety.”
“Pedestrian fatalities are at a 40-year high, and low-income communities and communities of color bear the greatest risk,” said Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America. “Vehicle size and weight are major factors in determining whether a pedestrian will survive when they are struck by a car. A vehicle that receives a failing grade for pedestrian safety should never be eligible for a 5-star safety rating.”
“Dangerously oversized cars don’t belong on our roads, “said Mike McGinn, Executive Director of America Walks. “Adopting stronger safety ratings is a chance for USDOT and Secretary Pete Buttigieg to genuinely demonstrate their commitment to saving lives, and make good on the promises in their National Roadway Safety Strategy.”
“Our members operate some of the largest commercial truck fleets in North America and know from daily experience that design matters profoundly when it comes to the safety of those inside and outside any motor vehicle,” said Peter Goldwasser, Executive Director of Together for Safer Roads. “Blind zones in both commercial trucks and large passenger vehicles pose significant risks since, even with the most advanced driver training and expertise, crashes can occur when vulnerable road users remain hidden from view. USDOT has a powerful opportunity to continue on its impressive commitment to advancing road safety by updating NCAP ratings so that vehicles with low direct visibility are not eligible for 5-star ratings.”
“Southerners continue to suffer tremendous harm from dangerous vehicles,” said Garrett Gee, an Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Over the last three years alone, 4,629 pedestrians were killed in crashes in our region, and countless more people were injured. With this proposed rule, NHTSA has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that vehicles are designed to keep people safe, whether they’re inside or outside of the car.”
“I am disheartened that both evidence-based and emotional pleas have not swayed regulators to improve vehicle safety to reduce violent deaths on our roadways,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, leader of the Salud America! program at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. “In the current vehicle safety ratings program, regulators use comparative ratings, which compare similar size and weight vehicles like a Chevy truck to a Ford truck, but do not extend the comparison of each truck to a Honda sedan. This misrepresents the safety risk vehicles pose to non-occupants and contributes to asymmetry of information, reduced competition, and market inefficiencies. We urge prioritization of transparent safety assessment, regulation, and reporting on the risk vehicles pose to non-occupants, particularly pedestrians. Consumers deserve this information to make better buying decisions; auto-manufacturers need this information to incentivize vehicle safety improvements; and federal regulators need this information to regulate vehicles, particularly the size, weight, direct visibility, and speed of vehicles.”
“Too many loved ones–like my 5-year-old daughter Allison–could be alive today if USDOT had made these commonsense changes to the 5-star safety rating and required vehicle manufacturers to include the technologies that we know save lives, “said Jessica Riester Hart, member of Families for Safe Streets. “For this administration to achieve its goal of ending roadway deaths, it must deliver on these simple policy solutions. Every child’s safety should be considered in a vehicle’s 5-star rating. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside–any injury, any death, is a preventable tragedy.”
“With pedestrian deaths at a 40-year high, the League of American Bicyclists commends NHTSA for taking the step of incorporating the safety of pedestrians into its crash testing. For over 20 years, other countries have been crash testing new vehicles for pedestrian safety. Consequently, these countries have reduced the number of people killed in traffic violence to levels two to five times lower than what we face in the U.S.,” said Bill Nesper, Executive Director of the League of American Bicyclists. “If the United States is going to reach zero traffic deaths, as our leaders have stated is the goal, then NHTSA must play a more active role in vehicle safety, and it can start by making sure the most deadly vehicles for pedestrians do not receive their coveted 5-Star rating.”
Thousands of concerned individuals, cities, advocates, and national organizations have called for NHTSA to strengthen NCAP–including by stopping the practice of awarding five-star safety ratings to the vehicles most likely to kill people walking and biking in a crash. NACTO and its member cities and partner organizations ask Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Acting Administrator Ann Carlson to immediately and transparently outline USDOT’s timeline for incorporating and responding to this groundswell of feedback.
To learn more about the current safety issues with NCAP, see letters to NHTSA from NACTO, U.S. cities, and partner organizations, and to learn more about vehicle design for safety, visit nacto.org/program/vehicle-design.
About the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)
NACTO is an association of 96 major North American cities and transit agencies formed to exchange transportation ideas, insights, and practices and cooperatively approach national transportation issues. The organization’s mission is to build cities as places for people, with safe, sustainable, accessible, and equitable transportation choices that support a strong economy and vibrant quality of life. To learn more, visit NACTO.org or follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Alex Engel | [email protected]
Billy Richling | [email protected]
For Immediate Release
August 2, 2023