U.S. urges automatic braking systems, but won't mandate

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau
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Washington — The Transportation Department said Thursday it will add two automatic emergency braking systems to recommended safety features as part of its five-star New Car Assessment Program — but declined to propose mandating the technology on all vehicles.

The program will include two automatic emergency braking systems — crash imminent braking and dynamic brake support — in recommendations to new car and truck buyers.

"Today marks an enormous leap in the evolution of auto safety by encouraging adoption of new technologies to keep drivers and their passengers safe on our roads," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Making it very clear that the technology will be one of the criteria on which auto manufacturers are graded is a pretty big step. They all want to be a five-star company."

NHTSA highlights some advanced features already — including if vehicles have lane departure warning systems or rear cameras — but they are only listed on its safercar.gov website and not on the vehicle window stickers.

The new recommendations won't take effect until after the public gets at least 60 days of comments — and then NHTSA will respond before new recommendations go up on the government's website. The 16-page proposal lays out test speeds and parameters that automakers would have to pass in order to be listed as having the braking technologies.

In May 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was considering requiring the technology in all future vehicles — and set a self-imposed deadline of the end of 2013 to decide whether to move forward with new regulations or to include it as part of the New Car Assessment Program.

Many new vehicles that have automatic braking or dynamic braking "are able to sense an impending crash and either apply the brakes for the drivers if they fail to do so, or are smart enough to know when the driver is not applying enough braking force and supplement the braking force to avoid or mitigate the collision," NHTSA said in 2013.

The sensor-based technology can detect a forward crash with another vehicle or pedestrian before it occurs, by alerting the driver to take corrective action or automatically applying brakes.

The systems show great promise to save hundreds — if not thousands — of lives by warning inattentive drivers before they hit a car ahead, or alerting them they are about to go off the road — or intervening to prevent crashes. Those types of wrecks account for 60 percent of fatal highway accidents, and the new technology could substantially reduce them.

Asked if he thinks automakers have gotten the message that they need to be aggressive in responding to safety issues after a record 63.5 million vehicles in 2014, Foxx said he was optimistic but was taking a wait and see approach. "If we see folks slipping up, they are going to get hammered and I think that's what 2014 has showed," Foxx said, referring to record fines to automakers for failing to comply with NHTSA rules. "We're going to be very tough on folks that violate our rules."

Separately, NHTSA said in a new report that safety technologies like seat belts, airbags and electronic stability control have saved an estimated 613,501 lives since 1960.

In an interview Wednesday, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the agency was still studying the issue. Foxx said the agency will work to complete action on some pending regulations. "We're going to be pushing pretty hard to move rules through," Foxx said. Foxx said he "wouldn't' completely foreclose" the idea of eventually mandating frontal collision avoidance systems.

According to NHTSA data, one-third of all police-reported crashes in 2013 involved a rear-end collision with another vehicle. NHTSA also found that a large number of drivers involved in rear-end crashes either did not apply the brakes at all or did not apply the brakes fully prior to the crash. Crash imminent braking and dynamic brake support systems can prevent crashes by automatically applying the vehicle's brakes or supplementing the driver's braking effort to mitigate the severity of the crash or to avoid it altogether.

NHTSA said Thursday it is still working on a broader revision of the New Car Assessment Program and seeks to ensure the program continues to encourage both consumers and automakers to develop and adopt advanced vehicle safety technologies.

In April 2013, NHTSA said it was considering new vehicle safety ratings that would help older people and families. Foxx said a review is ongoing of other changes to the NCAP program and he said other changes beyond those suggested in 2013 may be announced. Asked for a time frame, "we have a couple years," Rosekind said.

NHTSA last revised its "Stars on Cars" program in 2010, giving drivers a single overall score for the first time. It added information on whether autos have advanced safety features, such as lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems.


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