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News from the National Academies
Date: March 26, 1996
Contacts: Barbara J. Rice, Deputy Director
Office of News and Public Information
Justin Lin, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <news@nas.edu>

EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EST TUESDAY, MARCH 26
NEW-CAR BUYERS WOULD BENEFIT FROM A RATING OF
COMPARATIVE AUTO SAFETY PERFORMANCE

WASHINGTON -- Consumers need better information about how different vehicles might protect them in a crash and how special features may help prevent accidents, concludes a new report* from a National Research Council committee.

Among its recommendations, the committee said that a safety label -- similar to existing fuel-economy stickers -- should be displayed by the year 2000 on all new cars, vans, and light trucks sold at U.S. dealerships. The label would list a standardized safety rating that would allow consumers to compare ratings across classes of vehicles.

"Under our proposal, a label on each new vehicle would include a safety score of crashworthiness compared to other vehicles, plus a list of crash avoidance features such as anti-lock brakes," explained committee chair M. Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. "A brochure in the glove box and a handbook available at libraries or over the Internet would provide more detailed comparisons on vehicle safety."

When deciding which type of new car to buy, consumers would benefit from information about safety differences across various classes of cars. For example, new-car buyers today can't compare the safety of a mid-sized car to a sport-utility vehicle. Existing crash test results can be compared only among vehicles of similar size and weight. Information about vehicle safety "is not always timely, accessible, or in a form that readily supports comparison shopping," the report notes.

The committee urged the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to launch a voluntary initiative, directed by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (DOT/NHTSA) in cooperation with automobile makers, the insurance industry, and others concerned about improving vehicle safety. The initiative's aim would be to develop comparative, summarized safety information and conduct a related program of research. Congress should initiate the effort by providing funding and charging DOT with ensuring the development of reliable comparative safety measures and a mechanism for continuing improvements.

Congress barred NHTSA from requiring additional vehicle safety information until the Research Council committee could offer guidance on conveying the information to the public in useful and cost-effective ways. The report was prepared by nine experts drawn from universities, highway safety organizations, the automotive and insurance industries, and consumer groups.

VEHICLE SAFETY AND CONSUMER INFORMATION

Since 1966 when the United States established vehicle safety standards, fatality rates have dropped by nearly 70 percent, the report says. Yet crashes are still the nation's leading cause of accidental death. Every year they claim 40,000 lives and result in $140 billion in property damage, medical costs, lost wages, and other economic losses.

Driving behavior and road conditions are key factors in accidents. But when a driver is in a hazardous situation, vehicle design features, such as stability, can be important in avoiding a crash. During a crash, other design characteristics, such as the car's energy-absorbing capability, can be important in determining whether and how seriously the driver and passengers are injured.

An estimated 15 million new passenger vehicles are sold in the United States every year, and surveys suggest that more and more consumers are shopping for safety. Vehicle safety information may therefore create new marketing opportunities for automakers and incentives to design safer vehicles, the report says. Older drivers and families with young children may be especially interested in features intended to protect occupants, prevent accidents, and lower insurance claims.

The committee identified steps that should be taken now and goals that should be achieved by the year 2000 to improve vehicle safety information.

IMPROVING CURRENT INFORMATION

The committee urged the government and industry to take the following steps:

Stress the importance of vehicle size and weight. "All else being equal," the report notes, "big and heavy cars offer more protection to their occupants than small and light cars" during a crash. The probability of a fatality, when averaged over all types of crashes, is 2 to 3 times greater for the driver of a lighter car than for a driver of a heavier car. Consumers need explicit information about the importance of vehicle size and weight, and they should fully understand the benefits and proper use of safety features such as restraint systems.

Compare crash test data with "real-world" scenarios. Crash testing by the government for consumer information purposes simulates only head-on, frontal collisions and doesn't reflect the many variations in crash types and speeds at which they occur. Consumers need to know how laboratory data compare with the frequency of specific types of accidents in the real world, so they can interpret the results properly.

Emphasize the uncertainty of data. Consumers should be aware that the reliability of crash test results has not been established definitively. Cost constraints prevent the government from conducting multiple tests on a single model, raising questions about the variability of test scores.

Make safety information more visible and accessible. Car buyers may be more likely to use safety information if they know where to find it.

GOALS TO BE ACHIEVED BY 2000

In addition to the development of predictive measures of the overall safety performance of new motor vehicles, the committee outlined the following goals for the public and private sectors:

Defensible crashworthiness ratings. Crash test data, combined with expert judgments and other information, could be used to develop summaries of each vehicle's crashworthiness, compared to other vehicles. Posted on new cars, mini-vans, and light trucks, these crashworthiness ratings would help consumers judge how well a car might protect occupants from injuries in the event of a crash.

A checklist of crash avoidance features. Although features such as anti-lock brakes may help drivers avoid crashes in some situations, driver behavior is still the most important factor in predicting accidents. Consequently, the report says, it is currently impossible to "rate" a vehicle's crash avoidance potential. But new cars should include a checklist of crash avoidance features, such as superior visibility, that reduce risk.

A comprehensive communications strategy. As a basis for developing and communicating new safety data, researchers at NHTSA and elsewhere should determine what consumers know about vehicle safety and how they gather and use such information. Once the information is developed, it should be disseminated through many channels, including NHTSA's safety hotline, the Internet, insurance and auto-club mailings, consumer magazines, and driver education classes.

Establishment of a process to yield better information and safer cars. A continuing long-term process should be put in place under the management of a federal advisory committee or a new public-private Automotive Safety Institute to develop summary vehicle safety information, devise dissemination strategies, and conduct related research. For annual expenditures of $10 million to $20 million -- most coming from participating industries -- a continuing information and research program would lead to improved information for consumers. It also could lead to advances in data, crash tests, and analyses for vehicle design.

A CALL FOR JOINT ACTION

The report urges that the automobile manufacturers and the insurance industry, among others, join NHTSA in a voluntary effort to achieve these goals.

"We are not proposing any new regulations," Morgan noted. "We are recommending a system to provide consumers with clear, comprehensive information, and relying on market signals to guide that effort."

The report was sponsored by NHTSA at the request of Congress. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

*A pre-publication copy of Shopping for Safety: Providing Consumer Automotive Safety Information (TRB Special Report 248) can be purchased for $20.00 from the Transportation Research Board at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3214. Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Transportation Research Board

Committee for the Study of Consumer Automotive Safety Information

      M. Granger Morgan (chair)
      Head
      Department of Engineering and Public Policy
      Carnegie Mellon University
      Pittsburgh

      Ann Bostrom
      Assistant Professor
      School of Public Policy
      Georgia Institute of Technology
      Atlanta

      Thomas D. Gillespie
      Director
      Great Lakes Center for Truck and Transit Research
      University of Michigan
      Ann Arbor

      Lindsay I. Griffin III
      Research Scientist
      Texas Transportation Institute
      College Station

      Albert I. King
      Distinguished Professor
      Mechanical Engineering
      Wayne State University
      Detroit

      Wesley A. Magat
      Senior Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Professor
      Duke University
      Durham, N.C.

      Roger E. Maugh
      Executive Director
      Worldwide Automotive Strategy
      Ford Motor Co. (retired)
      Ann Arbor, Mich.

      R. David Pittle
      Vice President and Technical Director
      Consumers Union of the United States Inc.
      Yonkers, N.Y.

      Allan F. Williams
      Senior Vice President for Research
      Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
      Arlington, Va.


      RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

      Stephen R. Godwin
      Director, Studies and Information Services Division

      Nancy P. Humphrey
      Study Director