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How Our Car Safety Ratings Went From Best to Worthless

Motherboard takes a look at the rise and stagnation of the NCAP
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 14, 2021 4:20 PM CDT

(Newser) – When it comes to car safety ratings, the US was a trailblazer. Not so much anymore. In a deep dive for Motherboard, Aaron Gordon traces the fairly recent history of these ratings, which were created in the final days of the Carter administration thanks to Joan Claybrook, then the head of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At the time, most safety regulations were centered on head-on crash tests performed at 30mph. She decided to perform the tests at 35mph and make the results available to the public. Most cars failed at that speed. Her program, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), is now the crash safety ratings system that doles out up to five stars, and it was effective—automakers made improvements so they would pass at 35mph. But Gordon emphasizes the "was" part.

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The NCAP model was replicated eight times—in Australia, South Asia, China, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Latin America—and car safety improved. But rather than continuing to lead the pack, we're now bringing up the rear, argues Gordon—and Claybrook. The current standard "is so low that all cars comply," she says. It involves five tests related to front and side crashes and rollover resistance; the Euro NCAP now has 21 tests, which look at additional factors like rear-seat passengers, off-set crashes, and crash impact on pedestrians, bikers, and others outside the car (design adjustments can be made to increase safety in these cases). Between 2010 and 2019, road fatalities dropped 23% in the EU; between 2010 and 2018, they were up 11% here. Gordon digs deep into the Obama administration's stalled efforts to overhaul those tests and offers some bold proposals on how to fix and update its safety rating. (Read the full piece here.)

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