I recently participated in my first NTSB Board meeting as a member. We deliberated the findings of a crash involving a Tesla that drove into a gore area and struck a crash attenuator on a highway in Mountain View, California, killing the driver. Although this investigation was focused on level 2 automation safety issues, we also discussed the building blocks of autonomous vehicles—collision avoidance systems (CAS). In this crash, the vehicle was equipped with forward collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB), elements of a CAS, but they were not designed for this kind of collision. Additionally, we discussed how testing protocols for CAS should be more demanding, and that one way to do that is through the National Highway Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), its 5-star safety rating system for new automobiles. During the Board meeting, we highlighted vehicle rating systems in other countries, especially the European NCAP (Euro NCAP), and how they could—and should—be a model for the United States.
We believe a robust NCAP is vitally important for safety. A rating system helps manufacturers assess a vehicle’s crashworthiness, which is critical, but the NCAP can also be a great tool for consumers to assess which vehicles have advanced safety technologies and provide a guide for how they work. Additionally, such a rating system gives manufacturers an incentive to improve performance. A rating system that regularly increases the criteria for achieving a top score and promotes competition, compels automakers to continually improve the technology.
The US NCAP currently only provides crashworthiness (occupant protection) ratings; it doesn’t rate advanced safety technologies, such as FCW or AEB. These technologies are already on our roadways today and American consumers have no resources available to them to evaluate the effectiveness of collision avoidance technologies. Some consumers may even be totally unaware what CAS their automobiles come with.
In May 2015, the NTSB released a report touting the benefits of CAS and recommended that NHTSA expand the NCAP 5-star rating system to include a scale that rates CAS technology such as FCW performance. It also recommended it include the ratings on the legally required Monroney label, a window sticker that provides official data about the vehicle to consumers. We were pleased to see that, shortly after the report was released, NHTSA proposed a rule for testing procedures that would be similar to the more comprehensive testing done by European regulators. More importantly, NHTSA proposed expanding the NCAP 5-star rating to include a CAS rating, as well as pedestrian protection rating. Unfortunately, NHTSA has yet to publish a final rule to make this proposal a reality. It has issued several requests for comments regarding various aspects of testing protocols, but hasn’t moved forward to implement expansion.
The Euro NCAP, which was developed in 2009—nearly 15 years after the US NCAP—offers crashworthiness ratings as well as ratings on pedestrian protection (including cyclists) and driver-assistance and crash-avoidance technologies. Its safety assist rating for CAS is determined from tests of AEB, lane keeping, seat belt warnings, speed warning systems, and others. Euro NCAP ratings are displayed with the consumer in mind, with easy to read and compare pictures, diagrams and tables. There is currently no federal resource for rating CAS for US consumers
The Euro NCAP, as well as organizations in Australia and Japan, recognizes what we have long known: that car-to-car rear impacts are among the most frequent crash types, making it critical to rate technologies that address these safety issues. NHTSA has established test protocols and performance specifications for FCW and AEB as part of the US NCAP. For example, if a vehicle model is equipped with FCW or AEB, and has passed NHTSA’s minimum testing protocols, NHTSA’s website will state that such a vehicle may be equipped with those features; however, that only indicates that those systems have met NHTSA’s minimum performance criteria, and the vehicle only receives a pass or fail grade. CAS that meet the performance specifications are listed only as “recommended safety technologies” in the US NCAP. We know that various FCWs differ greatly in their performance—this pass/fail rating is not enough.
Additionally, although the US NCAP and the Euro NCAP use similar scenarios in their test protocols, the Euro NCAP uses a variety of targets, such as vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians; tests at a greater range of speeds; and, most importantly, rates system performance. Our Mountain View report recommends that the US NCAP be expanded even further to test forward collision avoidance systems performance using common obstacles, such as traffic safety hardware, cross-traffic vehicle profiles, and other applicable vehicle shapes or objects found in the highway operating environment.
Without a US NCAP to rate collision avoidance technologies, US consumers have had to turn to insurance research organizations for this kind of information. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for example, offers consumers vehicle reviews and ratings and issues its top safety picks. IIHS tests evaluate two aspects of safety: crashworthiness (how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash) and crash avoidance and mitigation (technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity). This is a great first step for consumers in the United States, but we need our regulators to step up and do the same.
The US NCAP has fallen behind its counterparts with respect to the safety information it provides to American consumers about CAS. We know that CAS can be very effective and can save lives, making it even more important to educate consumers about these critical technologies—their benefits as well as their limitations. That’s why this issue has been on the NTSB Most Wanted List for several years now.
We urge NHTSA to again become a global leader by incorporating CAS and other safety performance measures in the US NCAP, and by adopting testing protocols for CAS in commercial vehicles and requiring them on all new heavy vehicles. European and other international organizations have figured out the importance of offering these expansive rating systems to help save lives and improve transportation safety. It’s time for the United States to catch up.
This past week, law enforcement officials across the United States, including in Indiana, Minnesota, and Virginia, took to social media to express their concern about the increased number of motorists speeding on the nation’s currently less-crowded roads.
In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz reported that state officials have seen a “troubling surge” in traffic fatalities, even though stay-at-home orders have sharply reduced travel. The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety reports that there have been 24 fatal crashes in Minnesota since March 16, resulting in 28 deaths, compared to 12 crashes resulting in 13 deaths during the same time period last year.
Just because the roads are clear, doesn’t mean you can—or should—speed.
In 2017, we issued a report, Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles, which emphasized that speeding increases the likelihood of being involved in a crash and intensifies the severity of injuries sustained in a crash. Although research shows speeding impacts all road users, it’s particularly dangerous for the most vulnerable, such as pedestrians and bicyclists. As mentioned in our report, more than 40 percent of the more than 300,000 people who sustained nonfatal injuries due to speeding in 2014 were pedestrians, bicyclists, or occupants of nonspeeding vehicles.
Trying to save a few minutes to get to your destination, isn’t worth the risk of a crash. At this time, we should all be working together to lessen the burden on our already overtaxed law enforcement officials, emergency responders, and medical personnel. Don’t assume that because the roads are fairly empty these days, you’re safe to drive dangerously. If you must go out, be safe. We’re all in this together.
When I read the extended nationwide maximum telework order, prolonging the order that started on March 17th, I couldn’t help but think about what impact the COVID-19 preventive measures might have on traffic deaths around the country. Surely, we’ll see a drop in vehicle miles traveled, like we did in the last great recession, but will that give us a false sense of security that traffic safety has improved? The truth is, even though fewer people are driving, and we might see a drop in traffic fatalities in 2020 due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, risky driving behaviors persist. On one hand, I’ve seen reports of drivers using the emptier-than-normal freeways as their personal racetracks, and on the other, I’ve seen reports of significantly lower drunk driving arrests in the month of March.
We are extremely troubled by the increasing number of deaths and cases across our country related to COVID-19. Doctors, scientists, and public health professionals are all searching for a cure or a vaccine to eliminate this virus as quickly as possible. At the NTSB, we’re incredibly grateful for all those professionals—including those transporting vital supplies around the country. If Americans can choose to stay home to help slow the spread of COVID-19, imagine the impact we could have if everyone chose to make the safest driving choices for ourselves and our fellow road users. We have the power to flatten the curve of traffic deaths by making safe choices every day.
I’ve spent more than 25 years of my professional career in and around trucking, and I want to take a minute to highlight this industry. Having been a terminal manager, an FMCSA investigator, and a now an NTSB investigator, I’ve seen hundreds of fleet operations, and I understand how challenging it can be to keep the freight moving.
As we enter week 4 of, essentially, sheltering in place, we’re all trying to adjust to the new normal. It is a strange time indeed. Most families are faced with the same challenges of trying to telework with children home from school, while others may be faced with being laid off or having to report to work and strive to stay safe. It’s a relief that grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and other essential stores remain open. Thank goodness!
I do most of the grocery shopping for my family, and it’s now normal to see bare shelves. Who would’ve believed that toilet paper would be such a hot item during a pandemic?
Although the paper products aisle was bare, on my recent shopping trip, I was comforted to see that many of the other shelves in the grocery store were fairly well stocked; maybe not with every brand or size that I normally buy, but there were most of the essentials my family needed to get by another few days.
For most Americans, this is the first time they may be experiencing the shortage of many of their favorite items. And most Americans are also waiting on that truck in their neighborhood store to bring them diapers, eggs, milk, bread, meats, vegetables, and all the other critical items we need daily. Those trucks are now running around the clock to keep the shelves stocked. In fact, those trucks have always been moving products from ships, airports, rail yards, terminals, distribution centers, and other supply chain networks to keep our shelves full. Regardless of how or where things are produced, a truck must take them to their final destination. Truckers truly are the backbone of our economy, and now more than ever we’re depending on the more than a half-million trucking companies and fleets to go the extra mile for us.
As NTSB Member Homendy said in her April 2 blog post, “our nation’s transportation workforce is essential to getting critical goods to states and local communities and to ensuring that those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic, like medical personnel, grocery store employees, and other essential personnel, are able to continue the fight against COVID-19.” Especially in these difficult times, we want to take a moment to salute all those who are going the extra mile, as well as all of those truck drivers who are doing such an awesome job keeping us fed, supplied, fueled, and sustained during this very difficult time. We want to give them a sincere “thank you” for all that they’re doing. Maybe next time you see a truck driver, you might take a minute to say thanks, as well. Just make sure to do it from a distance of at least 6 feet.