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Working to make cars and roads of the future safer

Vehicles are safer than ever, but plenty of challenges remain

Published: February 2014
Distracted driving is on the rise.

On Feb. 25, Consumer Reports unveiled its 2014 Top Picks as part of this year's autos spotlight, an annual celebration of all things cars. Amid all that deserved hoopla, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is working to make sure that the vehicles and roads of the future are safer. (Watch our driving-safety videos below.)

This week, Consumers Union presented its auto-safety priorities to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, joining other stakeholders at a listening session on the agency’s strategic plan. We shared what we believe are the top driving-safety issues and look forward to working with NHTSA and other regulators. Highlights of our priorities and recommendations include:

Curbing distracted driving

Consumers Union has long worked to combat distracted driving and limit the number of distractions inside your vehicle. NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have partnered with us on a free guide for parents and educators (PDF) and a series of videos about teen-driver safety.

Last year, NHTSA issued long-awaited guidelines for car companies concerning in-car distractions, included complicated touch-screen and Internet-connected dashboard technology. We hope NHTSA works quickly on the remaining steps of its distraction plan and provides guidelines on the distractions posed by aftermarket devices and on the design of in-vehicle controls. We'd also like to see these suggested guidelines become the rules of the road for all automakers, rather than recommendations.

Finalizing rear-visibility rules

More than five years ago, Congress passed a law to direct the DOT to issue a rule for manufacturers to improve rearview visibility. The rule, scheduled to go into effect in 2011, was expected to make rearview cameras a standard feature in all new vehicles, yet it still hasn’t been implemented. Consumers Union, dismayed at the repeated delays, joined safety advocates in filing a federal lawsuit against the DOT to force the rule to be implemented. Around half of all cars already offer this technology, but we feel strongly that it should not be available only to consumers as part of an expensive options package.

Strengthening car-seat standards

NHTSA recently announced new car-seat-safety proposals, including a side-impact test for seats designed for children up to 40 pounds. As it stands now, each manufacturer tests side impact differently, making it impossible for consumers to make apples-to-apples safety claims. We support the proposals and are urging NHTSA to move quickly to implement this change. Consumers Union is also encouraging the agency to consider extending the requirements to all types of car seats, since most forward-facing car seats are designed for children over 40 pounds and won’t be held to the same standard.

Now that the side-impact rule has been proposed, we believe that NHTSA should turn its focus to updating the frontal-impact tests for car seats to better reflect current vehicle seats and car-seat installation systems.

Updating the New Car Assessment Program

Consumers Union is also pleased to see that NHTSA is considering changes to the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP, which evaluates new automobile designs for performance against various safety threats.

We have long been concerned that the NCAP’s crash tests leave the rear seat of the vehicle empty. This is a significant missed opportunity. In order to reflect real-world driving environments and ensure consumer safety in every seat of the vehicle, we believe that test dummies or car seats should be included in the rear seats of each vehicle during crash tests. For example, the potential of the vehicle’s interior surfaces to contribute to injury during contact could be explored during NCAP crash tests.

Protecting teen and senior drivers

We have put a special emphasis on distracted driving when it comes to younger drivers. Consumers Union believes that in order to best protect teens on the road, more research is needed to identify the unique safety challenges facing younger drivers that stem from in-car and aftermarket devices. As NHTSA shapes its strategic plan, we hope that the agency looks in to these challenges and how technology might help improve safety among teenage drivers. We also support the agency’s continued efforts to provide grants to states that pass and enforce anti-distracted driving laws and graduated driver's-license laws for teenagers.

Consumers Union also supports any initiatives that provide guidance to older drivers and families of older drivers in providing additional safety. “Silver car” ratings should be pursued, particularly in consideration of the aging U.S. population. Consideration should be given to ease of use of advanced controls, access, visibility, and crash performance. Recommendation for safety technologies such as improved lighting and inflatable belts that can aid senior drivers in particular should also be investigated as an addition to already-recommended safety technologies.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.


   

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