Vehicle Safety:

Opportunities Exist to Enhance NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program

GAO-05-370: Published: Apr 29, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2005.

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In 2003, 42,643 people were killed and more than 2.8 million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Efforts to reduce fatalities on the nation's roadways include the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's (NHTSA) New Car Assessment Program. Under this program, NHTSA conducts vehicle crash and rollover tests to encourage manufacturers to make safety improvements to new vehicles and provide the public with information on the relative safety of vehicles. GAO examined (1) how NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program crash tests vehicles, rates their safety, and reports the results to the public; (2) how NHTSA's program compares to other programs that crash test vehicles and report results to the public; and (3) the impact of the program and opportunities to enhance its effectiveness.

NHTSA conducts three types of tests in the New Car Assessment Program--full frontal and angled side crash tests and a rollover test. Each year, NHTSA tests new vehicles that are expected to have high sales volume, have been redesigned with structural changes, or have improved safety equipment. Based on test results, vehicles receive ratings from one to five stars, with five stars being the best, to indicate the vehicles' relative crashworthiness and which are less likely to roll over. NHTSA makes ratings available to the public on the Internet and through a brochure. Other publications, such as Consumer Reports, use NHTSA's test results in their safety assessments. GAO identified four other programs--the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's program and the New Car Assessment Programs in Australia, Europe, and Japan--that crash test vehicles and report the results to the public. They share the goals of encouraging manufacturers to improve vehicle safety and providing safety information to consumers. These programs conduct different types of frontal and side crash tests, and some perform other tests, such as pedestrian tests, that are not conducted under the U.S. program. Only the U.S. program conducts a rollover test. The other programs measure test results differently and include more potential injuries to occupants in ratings. They also reported their test results differently, with all summarizing at least some of the scores or combining them into an overall crashworthiness rating to make comparisons easier. NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program has been successful in encouraging manufacturers to make safer vehicles and providing information to consumers. However, the program is at a crossroads where it will need to change to maintain its relevance. The usefulness of the current tests has been eroded by the growing number of larger pickups, minivans, and sport utility vehicles in the vehicle fleet since the program began. In addition, NCAP scores have increased to the point where there is little difference in vehicle ratings. As a result, the program provides little incentive for manufacturers to further improve safety, and consumers can see few differences among new vehicles. Opportunities to enhance the program include developing approaches to better measure the interaction of large and small vehicles and occupant protection in rollovers, rating technologies that help prevent crashes, and using different injury measures to rate the crash results. NHTSA also has opportunities to enhance the presentation and timeliness of the information provided to consumers.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to examine the future direction of the New Car Assessment Program to maximize its value in providing an incentive for manufacturers to improve vehicle safety and informing the public about the relative safety of vehicles. This examination should include (1) identifying and evaluating NCAP tests that should help prevent fatalities on the nation's roadways, which should include developing measures for rating vehicle incompatibility in front and side impact tests and occupant protection in rollover crashes; (2) developing approaches to incorporate active safety systems ratings as a part of NCAP; and (3) analyzing alternative testing methodologies and dummies to provide a robust and accurate measure of the likelihood of serious injuries to a wide range of vehicle occupants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, agency officials concurred that the program is at a crossroads and generally addressed the need for some changes to the program. In January 2007, NHTSA released a report announcing a comprehensive review of the New Car Assessment Program. This report outlines NHTSA's plan to address all of the issues related to this recommendation through programmatic changes or by conducting additional research to identify a methodology for changes in testing, conducting research to address vehicle incompatibility issues, assessing active safety systems, re-evaluating its rollover testing, and analyzing alternative testing methodologies and dummies to provide an accurate measure ofserious injury to a wide range of vehicle occupants. NHTSA, in its plan for the future, acknowledged that its re-evaluation of the program was due in large part, to the issues raised in the GAO report.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should ensure that steps are taken to provide the public with improved NCAP safety information in a more timely manner. In doing so it may be necessary to examine how other organizations inform the public and develop summary ratings, whether vehicles could be obtained more efficiently for testing, how budgeted funds are managed during the year, and how efficiently NCAP times the crash tests conducted by its contractors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's report, in January 2007, NHTSA released a report announcing a comprehensive review or the New Car Assessment Program. This report addresses the part of the recommendation dealing with using summary vehicle safety ratings to enable the public to more easily compare safety from one vehicle to the next. NHTSA's re-evaluation of the NCAP also included research indicationg that consumers would find summary safety ratings useful. As a result, in its plan announced in January 2007, the agency indicated that it would begin preparing summary safety ratings for the vehicles it tests. To address the timeliness of safety ratings being made available to the public, in 2006, the agency requested additional funds for 2007, as authorized under Section 10307 of SAFETEA-LU, to accelerate the testing program to be able to provide the ratings information more quickly as the vehicles enter into the market. These extra funds allowed the agency to establish a one-time change to the NCAP testing schedule to accelerate the testing program by purchasing vehicles sooner and scheduling tests with its contractors more efficiently to more promptly provide vehicle ratings as the new models are released, without compromising the integrity of the program. As a result, beginning with Model Year 2007 vehicles, consumer information has been made available to the public about three months earlier than in the past.

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