U.S. Views on Auto Safety are Schizophrenic

NOTE: The following article was published in Auto Monitor, August 16-31, 2007. Auto Monitor is India’s largest auto industry trade news publication

It’s difficult to find an advertisement for a vehicle in the U.S. that doesn’t include safety claims. Multiple airbags, Electronic Stability Control, an alphabet soup of indecipherable acronyms, along with the prerequisite government five-star ratings – all seemingly indicate we are at the pinnacle of safety in America. Despite all of this hype, U.S. views on auto safety are schizophrenic: We allow our crash safety regulations, many of which were written decades ago, to significantly lag behind state-of-the-art and meanwhile more than 42,000 deaths that occurred on America’s roads last year are given scant notice.

Currently, much of the safety focus is on crash prevention technologies. These technologies offer tremendous opportunities to reduce injuries and fatalities by preventing crashes. But protecting occupants who are in crashes should remain a high priority. In addition to providing a vehicle structure designed to deform, occupants must have a “safety cage” to provide sufficient survival space in crashes, and restraint systems and occupant packaging designed to reduce injuries and fatalities.

While these well-recognized concepts are the basis of motor vehicle crashworthiness, today rollover crashes account for nearly one-third of all deaths on U.S. roads, yet we lack standards ensuring occupant protection in rollovers. The current standard, which governs roof strength (FMVSS 216), requires a vehicle roof to withstand a static force of 1.5 times its unloaded vehicle weight. First established in 1973, the requirement was intended as a “temporary” alternative to the much more stringent dynamic dolly rollover test. But this “temporary” requirement was never significantly altered even as data continued to show the growing risk of death and serious injury from rollover crashes. The first proposed revision to FMVSS was issued in 2005 yet the proposal offered only a slightly more stringent version of the current static test-a test that is roundly criticized for lacking real-world relevance to occupant protection in rollover crashes. A new proposal is expected before the end of the year. Rollover occupant protection has become so controversial there is lack of agreement even on a basic level, including whether a roof crushing into the occupant space is the cause of motorists’ injuries.

Another consistent crashworthiness problem is “The Forgotten Child.” Children between the ages of 4 and 8 years old have been consistently left out of manufacturers plans for improved safety. These children are not so much forgotten, as systematically ignored by industry and regulators alike. In fact, the historical landscape is dotted with missed opportunities to close the safety gap and warnings about the failure to do so.

Today, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of injury-related unintentional death among children aged 14 and younger; children between the ages of 5-14 account for two-thirds of those deaths. In 2005, 585 children, ages 5-9 died in motor vehicle crashes; 74,000 suffered injuries. About 8,000 of those injuries were incapacitating-including traumatic brain injuries caused by head trauma and cervical spine and severe abdominal injuries associated with restrain misuse.

These tragic statistics reflect more than benign neglect. They are the result of manufacturers’ conscious decisions to exclude young children in their restraint designs, abetted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s inconsistent and ineffective regulations. Regulators have been slow to require automakers to install the basic equipment necessary to make child safety seats effective – such as rear lap/shoulder belts – particularly in the middle position. They have failed to promulgate standards for child restraints that cover the probable weight ranges for passengers in the 4-8 year-old age range. Astoundingly, there are still no dynamic requirements to test dummies – of any size – in rear seats.

Safety demands a holistic and systems approach and it takes more than advertising about features to make an impact on motor vehicle deaths and injuries.

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