The main purpose of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) is to provide consumers with vehicle safety information in order to aid them in their vehicle purchase decisions.  If you’ve heard of  “Government’s 5-star crash test ratings”, then you’re familiar with US-NCAP.   Today the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) unveiled the first round of US-NCAP test results from 2011 model year vehicles that have been rated using their new, improved crash rating system.  Drumroll please….. 

Only two vehicles in this round of testing have earned the top overall rating of 5-Stars.  Those vehicles are the 2011 BMW 5 Series 4-dr rear wheel drive (4 stars frontal, 5 stars side, 5 stars rollover risk) and the 2011 Hyundai Sonata “later release” – need clarification on date (4 stars frontal, 5 stars side, 5 stars rollover risk).  Only one vehicle, the 2011 Nissan Versa earned a poor overall score of 2 stars (3 stars frontal, 2 stars side, 4 stars rollover risk).  The biggest surprise came from the 2011 Camry results.  A 3-star overall rating, worse than most other vehicles tested in this round, was probably a big shock to many.  The main reason it did so poorly?  Ask the poor 5th percentile female dummy who probably needed some serious ATD first-aid after the frontal and side impact Camry tests (only 2 stars for protecting her in each of 3 different tests – ouch!).  Other than the Camry and the Versa, the vast majority of vehicles tested in this round earned an overall score of at least 4 which is very good news.    

Before you can fully appreciate what’s new and improved about these ratings, you have to understand how NHTSA previously rated vehicle for crash-worthiness.  Basically, our US-NCAP frontal crash testing regimen had been virtually unchanged since it began – in 1978.  I kid you not.  They did add a side-impact test in 1997 and rollover resistance ratings in 2001 but the frontal crash test protocol has remained mostly the same for the last 32 years.  

Previously, for frontal crash ratings, dummies representing two average-sized adult  males (Hybrid-III 50% male ATD) were placed in both the driver and front passenger seats and secured with the vehicle’s seat belts. Vehicles were then crashed into a full-width concrete barrier at 35 mph (56 km/h), which is equivalent to a head-on collision between two similar vehicles (vehicles from the same weight class) each moving at 35 mph.  Star ratings from 1-5 indicated the chance of a serious injury to the driver and front seat passenger.  A serious injury is defined as one requiring immediate hospitalization and may be life threatening.  The best possible score of 5 stars = 10% or less chance of a serious injury to an average-sized adult male in the front seat during a full-width frontal crash.  

In previous side-impact testing, a 3,015 lb MDB (Movable Deformable Barrier) impacts the driver’s side of the vehicle at 38 mph.  The barrier size and height simulates being struck by a vehicle with a lower center of gravity (i.e., a car – not a taller SUV or truck).  Inside the vehicle were two dummies representing average-sized adult  males (50% male SID) – one in the driver’s seat and one behind it in the rear driver’s side outboard seating position.  Both dummies were properly secured with vehicle seatbelts.  In this previous side-impact test, a 5-Star rating indicated a 5% or less chance of a serious chest injury.  No, that’s not a typo.  Under the previous US-NCAP side-impact test protocol – potential head injuries to the dummy were not rated.  Unbelieveable, isn’t it?  The reason that head injury criterion (HIC) wasn’t a component of the previous NCAP side-impact score was because the Neanderthal of an ATD, that was required to be used, wasn’t capable of measuring it accurately.        

Rollover resistance rating was based on two factors: a lab measurement known as the Static Stability Factor (SSF) which determines how top-heavy a vehicle is and a test track “fish-hook” maneuver that tests how vulnerable the vehicle is to tipping during a severe turning maneuver. 

Under the old rating system, most vehicles received five separate star ratings: Frontal crash – driver, passenger. Side crash – front seat, rear seat.  And a separate rollover resistance rating.  Sounds like a decent and fair way to disseminate the info, right?  Unfortunately, what we wound up seeing advertised on TV and in print ads was often just part of the ratings picture. Vehicle manufacturers would brag about their “5-STAR SAFETY RATING” for model XYZ but failed to clarify that this particular vehicle only received a 5-Star rating in one or two of the rating categories – not in all of them. In fact, this particular XYZ model might have been a potential death trap in side impacts or have a very high rollover risk but if earned 5 stars in just one of the crash ratings, then chances are it was advertised as having received “5-Stars for crash protection”!  I don’t think that’s exactly what NHTSA had in mind when they came up with this system, which is why it doesn’t surprise me to see that they’ve now ditched the multiple ratings for one single, impossible-to-misrepresent overall score.  

Meanwhile, as the above-mentioned marketing ploy was enjoying great success, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was busy “motivating” vehicle manufacturers to actually build safer vehicles.  For reference, the IIHS crash testing protocols are generally considered to be more rigorous than the previous US-NCAP tests.  Not that long ago it was common to see vehicles that had performed well in US-NCAP testing, perform poorly in the IIHS crash tests.  Thanks to the Institute (and the fact that no engineering team wants its design to be a loser), it is currently much more common to see vehicles do well in both the US-NCAP and IIHS crash tests.  Now, if you’re NHTSA, what do you do when you’ve reached the point where most new vehicle designs receive a 4 or 5 star rating?  Do you congratulate your administration for a job well done, give everyone a raise and an extra week of paid vacation?  Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did that too but to their credit – they finally raised the bar!      

US-NCAP’s new star rating system provides consumers with a single, overall Vehicle Safety Score (VSS).  The VSS rating is a combination of scores achieved in 3 areas of assessment: Frontal Crash (42%: Driver & Passenger scores evenly split), Side Impact Crashes (33%: MBD driver 40%, MBD passenger 50%, Pole driver 10%) & Rollover Risk – SSF only (25%).  Furthermore, there are now several significant changes to those test protocols, including an additional side-impact “pole test” which is already standard in EURO-NCAP testing.  During the pole test, the vehicle is propelled sideways into 25-cm diameter pole.  Since the pole is rigid and relatively narrow there is major penetration into the side of the vehicle.  This test simulates a side-impact crash into a narrow fixed object like a tree or utility pole. 

Here is a breakdown of the additions and changes to the US-NCAP testing protocols:

New Frontal Crash Test Protocol:

  • Same velocity – 35 MPH
  • Same full-width rigid barrier
  • Still using the 50th percentile male Hybrid-III dummy in driver’s seat
  • Now using 5th percentile female Hybrid-III dummy in front passenger’s seat 
  • Expanded injury calculations (now includes HIC15, neck injury, chest deflection & femur loads)

 

New Side Crash Test Protocol:

  • Same velocity – 38.5 MPH
  • Same MDB
  • New 5oth percentile male dummy, EUROSID-2 with rib extentions (ES-2re), positioned in driver’s seat
  • ES-2re dummy injury calculations:  HIC36, chest deflection, abdominal/pelvic force 
  • Now using 5th percentile female SID-II dummy in rear seating position  
  • SID-II dummy injury calculations:  HIC36, pelvic force

 

New Pole Impact Test Protocol:

  • Velocity – 20 mph
  • Pole is 25-cm in diameter and impacts the area of the driver’s seat
  • 5th percentile female SID-II dummy placed in front driver’s seat
  • SID-II dummy injury calculations:  HIC36, pelvic force
  • Pole test results aren’t weighed heavily in overall vehicle score (side crash score is 33% of overall VSS but pole test only accounts for 10% of total side crash score rating)  

 

New Rollover Rating:

  • No change from previous RO test protocol – Static Stability Factor and test track maneuver remain unchanged but only the SSF is counted as part of the overall safety score

 

What these changes mean and why they’re so important 

US-NCAP was desperately in need of an update but it doesn’t make sense to duplicate the efforts of the IIHS so it was wise to keep the full-width frontal crash test.  This type of frontal crash is very different from the offset test used by the IIHS.  Full-width frontal crashes into a rigid barrier create very high deceleration forces on the dummies and are therefore especially demanding of the restraint systems inside the vehicle.  However, they are less demanding of the vehicle’s structure, while the reverse is true in offsets.  Full-width and frontal offset tests complement each other so it’s a winning combination.

New Dummies + Better Dummies = Better Data.  The biggest problem with the old US-NCAP side-impact test was that the SID dummies used were antiquated and practically worthless in terms of reading potential injury measures to real human occupants in side-impact crashes.  The other issue with both the old frontal and old side-impact tests was that they only utilized dummies representing average-sized adult males (approximately 5’9″ tall and 170 lbs).  Since many vehicle occupants are smaller in stature than the 50% male dummy, and occupant size contributes in large part to crash outcomes, it’s important to test dummies of different sizes in each type of crash.   

Apples and Oranges. While you cannot use this new data to compare previous model year ratings to current 2011 ratings, or to compare the frontal crash test results of vehicles in different weight classes, you can use the side impact data to directly compare all vehicles rated.  Results from both the side MDB test and the side pole test can be compared directly among any vehicle tested in any weight class. 

The new pole test is a very nice addition to US-NCAP and when combined with the different types of testing done by the IIHS, it really helps to give savvy American vehicle consumers a good picture of the crash-worthiness of newer vehicles.  The pole test also helps to align our US-NCAP testing standards a little more with the EURO-NCAP standards which also utilize a pole test.  Even though this particular test doesn’t count much towards our overall VSS, it still provides very useful data and should help to save lives by motivating vehicle manufacturers to make vehicles that are safer in single-vehicle, side-impact crashes involving trees and utility poles.     

 

Opportunities Wasted

Since it’s possible that this is the last major US-NCAP update that any of us will see in our lifetime, I was a little disappointed by what they didn’t update or add.  For starters, there was no increase in frontal crash test velocity.  Yes, I understand how rigorous and demanding the 35 mph full-width barrier test is already but even a relatively small increase in testing speed could have been implemented and might have yielded some very useful data.  I was also disappointed to see that crash avoidance technology like ESC (or lack thereof) didn’t factor into the VSS in any way.  Sure, it’s nice that they point out which safety features and crash avoidance technologies a vehicle has (or doesn’t have) but if you make it count towards the final VSS then vehicle manufacturers might be more motivated to offer it or make it a standard feature.      

By far, my biggest disappointment in all of this has to be that there is STILL no protocol for testing child safety seats in vehicles here in the US.  Since no one drives around with their kids secured to a test sled bench – doesn’t it just make sense to test carseats and boosters in “real” crash tests?  Why not get more bang for your buck and install a CR or two in the back seat? Especially since you have empty seating positions in these vehicles that you’re going to crash anyway!  

Look, I understand this isn’t a simple request but as the Chicago Tribune article from last year highlighted, this is an area that could potentially use a lot of improvement.  But without incentive to improve, many vehicle manufacturers will just continue to ignore this aspect of occupant protection.  How many more years are we going to sit back and “collect data” as part of “research projects”?  We’re talking about protecting our kids from the #1 killer in the 3-14 age group!  For too long vehicle manufacturers have practically ignored the back seat and have seemingly given even less thought to those “things” that frequently have to be placed back there.  Recessed lower anchors that are practically impossible to reach, crazy tether routing systems, inconsistent weight limits on LATCH anchors, rear seat designs that practically laugh at you when you try to secure a CR on them.  I could go on and on but I’ll spare you the rest of my rant for the moment.  Hopefully you get the point.  

For the record, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Since 2003 EURO-NCAP has been providing European consumers with a child occupant rating for each vehicle crash tested.  In 2009, the child score became an integral part of the overall EURO-NCAP vehicle crash rating.  Their system has limitations and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive rating of all European CRs but it’s something.  And in this case, something is definitely better than nothing.  

Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 32 years to see more US-NCAP regulatory changes.