Frontal Offset Crash Test Regulation Scrapped

To the dismay of some highway safety groups, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has decided to withdraw a proposal to add a high speed frontal offset crash test to its occupant crash protection standard.

Citing the need for more research, NHTSA announced its decision on August 23, about a year and a half after the agency published a request for comments on the possibility of adding this crashworthiness test to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208. At the same time, it shuttered a related rulemaking to amend regulations to include lower leg instrumentation. Both have been removed from the Semi-Annual Regulatory Agenda, because no rulemaking action is anticipated in the near future, the agency said.

Officials from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which has been conducting offset frontal crash tests as part of its Crashworthiness Evaluation Program since 1995, expressed disappointment in the withdrawal.

"We believe that they should be part of compliance testing," says spokeswoman Anne Fleming. "Manufacturers are designing to a frontal offset test anyway, so it wouldn't add a huge compliance burden. They are doing it to get a good rating on our tests, but we believe it would be important to ensure that these design advances are extended to all vehicles."

NHTSA has been working on adopting a frontal offset crash test since Congress directed it to adopt one in 1997. The agency's own data on fixed offset deformable barrier crash tests shows that such a test requirement would potentially reduce 1,300 to 8,000 MAIS 2+ lower extremity injuries each year. Nonetheless, NHTSA said that further studies are needed to develop an upgrade that would provide occupant protection in any given vehicle without causing more harm to occupants in its collision partner.

NHTSA was primarily concerned that an offset frontal crash requirement might increase front-end rigidity and vehicle aggressiveness, causing even more damage in a collision between two incompatible cars, such as a sedan and an SUV. The agency based its conclusion on earlier tests that showed that some large vehicles that had improved their offset frontal crashworthiness did more damage to smaller cars.

About 17 organizations and private individuals had responded to NHTSA's proposal, ranging from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and major manufacturers such as Honda, General Motors and Ford to consumer groups, such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Automakers generally supported the goal of reducing lower extremity injuries in frontal crashes, but urged the agency to do more research and echoed NHTSA's aggressivity fears. In contrast, the IIHS, The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety offered their support for the immediate adoption of an offset frontal crash test, saying that they represent the vast majority of real-world crash scenarios.

The withdrawal leaves the federal agency well behind its counterparts in the European Union, which has required vehicles to pass a 56 km/h, 40 percent offset, fixed deformable barrier crash test since 1996 and Australia, which passed a similar passenger regulation in 1998.
Adrian Lund, IIHS's chief operating officer, criticized the agency for basing its conclusions on scant and mis-analyzed data and says that NHTSA's decision sets the effort to make vehicles safer in frontal offset collisions back another six years, at least.

"There's no credible data that suggests there is an increase in aggressivity in vehicles that improve their offset frontal crash ratings," Lund says. "And theoretically the way you modify a vehicle to do well is to make sure the front does crush before the occupant compartment, you add additional crush points. That means the front end gets softer."

Lower extremity injuries are not commonly life threatening; however, they often result in costly long-term disability and impairments. In addition to footwell intrusion, vehicle control pedals are a frequent source of lower-extremity injuries in frontal offset crashes. Many vehicle manufacturers in Europe and Australia have adopted pedal systems designed break-away and reduce the risk of injury to feet and lower legs in the frontal crashes. Pedal suppliers report that these systems, which have been available for many years, are not frequently found in U.S. counterparts.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., 2005

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