Bill would add high-tech features to new car stickers

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A bipartisan group in Congress introduced legislation on Wednesday that would force the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to include active safety systems in assessing vehicle five-star safety ratings.

Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Edward Markey and Reps. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. and Earl Blumenauer, D-Wash., introduced the Safety Through Informed Consumers Act that would require NHTSA to integrate active safety technology into its crashworthiness rating system.

It’s not clear if the legislation would require NHTSA to simply disclose what technologies were available on new car window stickers — or if future cars would need to have the technologies to get a five-star rating.

It’s the first piece of auto safety reform legislation in recent years to draw bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. But other bills would go much farther in requiring sweeping new requirements by NHTSA, give them authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road or to file criminal charges against auto executives who delayed deadly recalls.

The bill will ensure “American families are well-versed on whether vehicles they are looking to purchase are equipped with the newest, state-of-the-art safety technology,” Heller said. “ Given recent issues surrounding ignition switch defects, airbag defects, and numerous vehicle recalls, this bipartisan-bicameral legislation will help restore consumers’ confidence in the safety of their vehicles.”

Markey said the systems need updating.

“Consumers trust auto window-sticker safety ratings when they compare vehicles. Today’s 5-star safety rating system only tells them how safe they are in the vehicle once a crash occurs, ignoring any features like collision warning and automatic emergency braking, that can help avoid that crash in the first place,” Markey said. “With new safety technology standard in many cars, we need a 21st century 5-star safety rating system that tells consumers how safe their vehicles really are.”

The push comes after the National Transportation Safety Board this week again prodded automakers and NHTSA to make forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking systems standard on all vehicles — a request the agency has made since 2012.

NTSB wants NHTSA to develop tests and standards to rate the performance of each vehicle’s collision avoidance systems and to use the results as part of a revamped 5-star safety program.

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. Other technologies include blind spot detection and lane departure warning systems.

NHTSA has repeatedly refused to begin the process to require the systems — and the United States lags efforts by the European Union and Australia, which are including the technologies in setting vehicle ratings.

Automakers have in recent years opposed new mandates, and say they could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new car or truck. In the European Union, automakers must now add the systems to get the highest rating in government crash tests.

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

“You don’t pay extra for your seat belt,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said on Monday. “And you shouldn’t have to pay extra for technology that can help prevent a collision altogether.” He called the board’s report released Monday a “wake-up” and urged automakers and NHTSA to work together to speed adoption.

Hart noted that just four out of 684 passenger vehicle models in 2014 included a complete forward collision-avoidance system as a standard feature. It is primarily on more expensive vehicles.

The NTSB first started calling for the development of vehicle technologies to help avoid crashes in the mid-1990s.

In January, NHTSA said it would add two automatic emergency braking systems to recommended safety features as part of its five-star New Car Assessment Program: crash-imminent braking which automatically applies brakes as necessary; and dynamic brake support, which increases braking to its maximum in an emergency. But it declined to propose mandating the technology and isn’t listing them on the window stickers.

The NTSB on Monday recommended automakers make collision-avoidance systems standard equipment in new vehicles, beginning with collision warning systems, and adding automatic emergency braking once NHTSA sets performance standards for those braking systems.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others — said consumers, not the government, should decide whether to purchase advanced safety systems.

“Consumers want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding on how they spend their safety dollars, and automakers agree. Consumers should be deciding what vehicles they drive and what technology is in those vehicles,” alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said Monday.

In 2012, rear-end crashes killed 1,705 people and injured 547,000 in the United States. About 87 percent of those deaths and injuries might have been prevented or lessened if vehicles had a collision avoidance system, the NTSB said, because they were linked to driver inattention.