On September 5th the NHTSA announced that manufacturers would now be required to test for side-impacts with immoveable objects such as trees and telephone poles, in addition to side-impacts with moving vehicles (the standard up to now).
As well, the companies that build the vehicles you drive will now have to look beyond 'average' when testing for crash-worthiness. In other words, manufacturers will need to deal with the reality that not all people are built the same. We're not all 'average' size. To that end, NHTSA will now require manufacturers to go one better than the standard, average-sized male crash-test dummy, and begin employing the petite female dummy when gathering data for crash-worthiness.
It's the first indication the industry is starting to clue in to the fact that the crash-worthiness of a vehicle has a lot to do with the size of the passengers inside. And a car designed to protect an average-sized driver, will not protect a smaller person quite so effectively.
The upgraded standards announced by the NHTSA are welcome, but long overdue - and it says nothing about the industry's habit of burying its head in the sand given the real-world conditions on the nation's roads.
Yes vehicles are safer, at least in theory. Crumple zones, side-impact panels and air bags are thought to compensate for the larger, more robust vehicles of a bygone era that put a heavy frame, a huge V-8 engine and a king's ransom of sheet metal between you and the impact zone. Generally, cars have gotten smaller and there's no argument there.
But those are general terms. A good, honest look at what faces motorists today, in 2007, paints a completely different picture.
Reality check: Cars are continuing to shrink. With the sustained increase in fuel prices, people are flocking back to the sub-compact that is even smaller than the sub-compacts of yesteryear. Remember the Chevy Vega, and Ford Pinto? Today's sub-compacts are smaller yet. And let's not forget about the Smart cars now roaming the roadways. Tiny, two-seaters no bigger than a golf cart.
Reality check: Pickup trucks are bigger. The pickup is still a fan-favourite, and required driving in certain areas of the country. But who buys a two-door with a bench seat any more? They're longer, higher, and heavier.
Reality Check: People with adequate cash flow buy Hummers and SUVs. Fuel prices aren't an issue with these folks. They want big, and big feels safe to them. Sure. But how does that translate to the rest of us driving sub-compacts?
Reality Check: There are more large trucks on the road, and tandem rigs too. Everybody's working on the just-in-time delivery system, which means everyone's in a hurry. Accidents are waiting to happen. And when a loaded, tandem dump truck tangles with a sub-compact, well - let's not go there.
Reality Check: Bridges are falling. The nation's infrastructure is old, poorly maintained, and not designed for the kinds of heavy traffic, and heavier vehicles that are the realities of 2007. In 1950, most consumables were shipped by rail. Baby-boomers were still in training wheels, and there was usually one car per household. Now there can be several. So what happens when a three-fold increase in traffic, combined with the realities of more mega weight large-haul trucks and SUVs all come to a full stop, in traffic gridlock, on a fifty-year-old bridge?
We already know.
Reality Check: Today's cars feel like little cocoons, with negligible road noise, vibration-free steering, and a boffo sound system. Doesn't it feel like you're sitting in the comfort of your living room, playing a video game instead of actually driving? It's hard to feel invincible driving an old Chevy Impala. But a car with turbo, that fits like a glove?
Road? What road?
This is the reality of driving anywhere in 2007. Yet, how diligent are the manufacturers in testing for crash-worthiness given the present conditions?
In announcing improved standards yesterday, the NHTSA is finally beginning to address that reality.
But as Public Citizen says, in a commentary posted on their web site, there are still miles to go. The new NHTSA standard is but a drop in the bucket.
Public Citizen is calling for even tougher side-impact standards, especially when it comes to an impact so severe that an object, such as a motorcycle, compromises the passenger compartment for example. Strict intrusion limits are required. Today, this is not the case.
Also, there needs to be greater attention paid to the welfare of children. Right now, the pole test is used to gauge the impact to the front passenger only, without monitoring what happens in the back seat, where most children are placed. What's more, industry-standard crash-test dummies are not adequate to test for the real-world impact of children under 12.
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According to Public Citizen the occupant of a car is three times more likely to die in a collision with an SUV, and five times more likely to be killed if struck by a pickup truck.
Even the upgraded side-impact standard, announced September 5th by the NHTSA, only replicates a side-impact with a passenger car.
It is woefully inadequate. Little wonder lawyers are so busy.
The new side-impact standards will be phased in over three years, with vehicles weighing more than 8500 pounds given an extra year to comply. All vehicles, of all weight classes, will be required to meet the new standard starting with production as at September 1st, 2013.
God knows what our roads will look like, by that time.