Pedestrian Safety: NHTSA Needs to Decide Whether to Include Pedestrian Safety Tests in Its New Car Assessment Program

GAO-20-419 Published: Apr 23, 2020. Publicly Released: Apr 23, 2020.
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Fast Facts

On average, 17 pedestrians died each day in 2018 as a result of vehicle crashes—up 43% from 2008. Automakers offer safety features on many new cars to help protect pedestrians. For example, crash avoidance technologies use cameras or radar to detect pedestrians and warn drivers or automatically slow or stop the car.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has researched pedestrian safety and developed procedures to test new cars. In 2015, NHTSA proposed including these tests in its new car assessment program, but hasn’t made a decision on how to move forward or set a timeline for that to happen. We recommended they decide.

View from the driver's seat of a car while pedestrians walk in a crosswalk

View from the driver's seat of a car while pedestrians walk in a crosswalk

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Highlights

What GAO Found

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data show that certain vehicle characteristics related to age, body type, and the speed of the vehicle at the time of the crash are associated with increases in pedestrian fatalities from 2008 to 2018. Specifically, the number of pedestrian fatalities during this time period increased more for crashes involving vehicles that were:

11 years old or older compared to newer vehicles,

sport utility vehicles compared to other passenger vehicles, and

traveling over 30 miles per hour compared to vehicles traveling at lower speeds.

GAO also found that NHTSA does not consistently collect detailed data on the type and severity of pedestrian injuries, but began a pilot program in 2018 to improve its data collection efforts. NHTSA, however, lacks an evaluation plan with criteria to assess whether to expand the pilot program, as called for in leading practices. As a result, NHTSA lacks information to determine how and whether it should expand the pilot to meet the agency's data needs.

Automakers offer a range of approaches to address pedestrian safety. For example, pedestrian crash avoidance technologies use cameras or radar to detect an imminent crash with a pedestrian and engage a vehicle's brakes to avoid a crash. GAO found that about 60 percent of the model year 2019 vehicles offered in the United States by 13 automakers had pedestrian crash avoidance technologies as standard or optional equipment.

Safety Features on Vehicles Include Pedestrian Detection to Help Avoid Crashes

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In 2015 NHTSA proposed pedestrian safety tests for its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), but NHTSA has not decided whether it will include such tests in the program. NHTSA has reported that crash avoidance technologies could lead to a decrease in pedestrian fatalities. Nine automakers that GAO interviewed reported that NHTSA's lack of communication about pedestrian safety tests creates challenges for new product development. NHTSA has also not documented a clear process for updating NCAP with milestones for decisions. NHTSA officials said that updating NCAP involves many actions and can take years. However, absent a final decision on whether to include pedestrian safety tests in NCAP and a documented process for making such decisions, the public lacks clarity on NHTSA's efforts to address safety risks.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2018, about 6,300 pedestrians—17 per day—died in collisions with motor vehicles in the United States, up from about 4,400 in 2008. Many factors influence pedestrian fatalities, including driver and pedestrian behavior. Vehicle characteristics are also a factor. NHTSA tests and rates new vehicles for safety and reports the results to the public through its NCAP. Currently, pedestrian safety tests are not included in NCAP.

This report examines: (1) what is known about the relationship between vehicle characteristics and pedestrian fatalities and injuries, (2) approaches automakers have taken to address pedestrian safety, and (3) actions NHTSA has taken to assess whether pedestrian safety tests should be included in NCAP. GAO analyzed data on pedestrian fatalities and injuries from 2008 through 2018 (the most recent available data); reviewed NHTSA reports; and interviewed NHTSA officials. GAO also obtained information about pedestrian safety features from 13 automakers that represented about 70 percent of new vehicle sales in the United States in 2018, and compared NHTSA's actions with leading program management practices.

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Recommendations

GAO is recommending that NHTSA (1) develop an evaluation plan with criteria for expanding its pilot program, (2) make and communicate a decision about whether to include pedestrian safety tests in NCAP, and (3) document the process for making changes to NCAP. The Department of Transportation concurred with our recommendations.

For more information-contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or VonAhA@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration The Administrator of NHTSA should document an evaluation plan for the Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network pedestrian pilot program that includes criteria for determining whether and how to scale the pilot program to ensure that the piloted data-collection and analysis procedures will address NHTSA's data needs related to pedestrian injuries and vehicle characteristics. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In April 2020, GAO reported that in 2018 almost 6,300 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes, and an estimated 79,800 other pedestrians suffered injuries from such crashes. The mission of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce the economic costs associated with road traffic crashes. However, GAO found that NHTSA lacks complete data on the relationship between vehicle characteristics and pedestrian injuries to inform its efforts to mitigate pedestrian injuries. Specifically, GAO reported that although the design of vehicles and the safety features they offer can play an important role in reducing the frequency and severity of pedestrian crashes, NHTSA last collected detailed data on pedestrian crashes, including injury and vehicle characteristics, from 1994 to 1998. To help address this data need, NHTSA initiated a pilot program in 2018 to develop a data collection protocol for pedestrian-motor vehicle crashes. NHTSA established this pilot program through its Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network (CIREN), through which NHTSA planned to collect and analyze medical and engineering evidence from nine pedestrian crash cases collected from two hospitals to determine the cause of injuries. In April 2020, GAO reviewed documentation for the CIREN pedestrian pilot program and compared it against five leading practices for well-designed pilot programs, as established in prior GAO work. GAO found that NHTSA met most of the practices, including documenting clear, appropriate, and measureable project objectives, and communicating with stakeholders. However, NHTSA did not develop an evaluation plan for the pilot program that includes criteria or standards for identifying lessons learned or determining whether the new data collection and analysis procedures would satisfy its data needs related to pedestrian injuries. As such, GAO recommended that NHTSA document an evaluation plan that includes criteria for determining whether and how to scale the CIREN pedestrian pilot program to ensure that the piloted data-collection and analysis procedures will address NHTSA's data needs related to pedestrian injuries and vehicle characteristics. In March 2021, NHTSA published its Evaluation Plan for the CIREN Pedestrian Pilot Study which established a methodology and criteria to assess the data collection protocols used in the pilot program. Specifically, the Evaluation Plan identifies four criteria--feasibility, usefulness, scalability, and alternative methods--as well as a scoring methodology to assess the data collection methods employed in the pilot project, such as investigations of vehicle components striking the pedestrian and the nature of their injuries based on medical records. For example, NHTSA's plan describes procedures to assess whether the pilot program is collecting useful and scalable data to answer questions related to pedestrian and driver behavior, crash avoidance, and crashworthiness, which relates to improving the design of vehicles to reduce pedestrian injuries. By taking these actions, NHTSA has established a useful tool to evaluate results of its CIREN pedestrian pilot program and to make an informed decision as to whether and how the pilot program should be expanded into a more robust effort to inform NHTSA's understanding of pedestrian injury mitigation efforts.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Administrator of NHTSA should document the overall process for making changes to NCAP, including established criteria and milestones for decisions, and share this process with external stakeholders. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of March 2022, NHTSA updated its website to identify four prerequisites NHTSA considers when determining whether to update NCAP-including whether the update would improve safety and whether an objective test procedure exists for the update. The revised webpage also describes NHTSA's process for requesting public comments on proposed changes through the Federal Register before issuing a final decision on NCAP changes. In addition, through a March 9, 2022 notice to the Federal Register, NHTSA requested comments from the public on proposed changes to NCAP in which NHTSA proposed establishing a 10-year roadmap for future updates to NCAP. According to NHTSA, the roadmap sets forth NHTSA's near-term and longer-term strategies for upgrading NCAP gradually with proposed upgrades in phases as technologies mature. NHTSA requested comments on its proposed roadmap by May 9, 2022, and stated that it intends to finalize it by November 15, 2022 with subsequent updates every four years. We will continue to monitor NHTSA's progress in documenting its overall process for making changes to NCAP as it gathers feedback from the public on its proposed roadmap for NCAP updates and works to finalizes its roadmap.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Administrator of NHTSA should decide whether to include pedestrian safety tests in NCAP and NHTSA should communicate this decision and rationale to relevant stakeholders and the public. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of March 2022, NHTSA has requested comments from the public on several proposed changes to NCAP, including a proposal to add pedestrian automatic emergency braking to NCAP by establishing procedures to test the effectiveness of this technology to detect a pedestrian in the vehicle's path and stop the vehicle before a collision occurs. In its request for comments, NHTSA also proposed 10-year roadmap for NCAP in which NHTSA stated that it plans to propose a crashworthiness pedestrian protection testing program in NCAP in 2022 that would incorporate three crashworthiness tests to assess pedestrian injuries under different collision scenarios, including head-to-hood and lower-leg to bumper. NHTSA requested comments from the public on its proposed updates to NCAP by May 9, 2022. We will continue to monitor NHTSA's progress in addressing this recommendation, including any NHTSA efforts to analyze comments from the public and make a final decision on whether to include pedestrian safety tests in NCAP and the rationale for that decision.

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