Towards Zero Foundation and the Global New Car Assessment Programme

Delivered on behalf of the Chair by NTSB Senior Advisor Kelly Hessler to the 10th Anniversary Roundtable: Road Map for Safer Vehicles 2030 - A Global Perspective Towards Zero Foundation and the Global New Car Assessment Programme​. Chair Homendy was at the Mendon, MO accident scene. 

​Thank you, Carla. And congrats to the Towards Zero Foundation and Global NCAP on your 10th anniversary and your work to promote the use of safer vehicles worldwide. Here’s to your second decade!

It’s wonderful to be together, reengaging in person with safety partners from around the world. Because we’re in this road safety crisis together.

Around the world, nearly 3,700 people died on the road every single day last year. In the U.S.? More than 117 people a day, or nearly 43,000 annually. More than 3 million others were seriously injured. Our roads are among the deadliest. And, while many of you saw steep declines in the number of road fatalities during the pandemic, ours rose sharply.

Last year in the U.S.:

  • Pedestrian fatalities were up 13%  
  • Motorcyclist fatalities, up 9%
  • Bicyclist fatalities…deaths from speeding-related crashes, and in police-reported, alcohol-involved crashes were ALL up 5%
  • Unrestrained occupants of passenger vehicles, up 3%
  • And fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck jumped 13%.

It’s unconscionable. It’s preventable. And the risk isn’t evenly distributed; around the world, vulnerable populations and communities are at the highest risk of injury or death.

To save lives on roads in the U.S. and around the world — and to do so equitably — requires a paradigm shift. A shift from the conventional approach, which has failed all road users, to the Safe System approach, which prioritizes the lives of people over traffic.

The Safe System approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements and it’s been embraced by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the National Roadway Safety Strategy.

We’re all here today because we know that safe vehicles are a major part of a safe system. In fact, safe vehicles represent one of the biggest opportunities to move the needle on safety around the world.

The statistics I just cited about the rise in U.S. road deaths related to speeding, impairment, seat belt use, and vulnerable road users? Safety technologies can help address all of those areas. It’s why “Require Collision-Avoidance and Connected-Vehicle Technologies on all Vehicles” is also on our Most Wanted List.

As you know, the United States was once a leader when it came to ensuring safe vehicles. The heartbreaking truth is that we’ve fallen behind in crash testing and in ensuring lifesaving technologies are standard on all vehicles.

We have a moral obligation to do better. The U.S. is one of the world’s largest suppliers and consumers of passenger vehicles.

Our safety partners in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere are setting the standard, providing consumers with information to keep their families safe and vehicle manufacturers with safety goals and performance minimums.

I’m not saying we don’t have passionate, incredible advocates working on vehicle safety. We do, starting with David and Steve. What I am saying is this: the U.S. NCAP program is dangerously close to irrelevance.

To be fair, NHTSA under Steve’s leadership is setting out to change that. Because we all know NCAPs are a powerful tool to save lives.

The plan to update U.S. NCAP proposes many meaningful changes. And yet, it doesn’t go far enough, fast enough.

That’s why I’m here today. It’s why the NTSB exists. We call other government agencies, organizations, everyone to account when we fall short on safety. We do this to save lives. And today, I’m calling for the U.S. to return as a leader on vehicle safety.

To be clear: how we got here is bigger than any individual, department, or government agency. I’m talking society level. Here in the U.S., we spend far too much energy on one part of the Safe System, which is the actions of individual road users. We see this in our overreliance on enforcement and education.

Our unwillingness to “zoom out” and see the bigger picture is keeping us from zero. It’s keeping us from investing the time and energy we need to spend on the other parts of a Safe System — like safe vehicles and holding manufacturers accountable.

The result is that we’re falling short on the promise we made to every road user when we created the world’s first NCAP in 1979. The promise can be summed up in a single phrase: “More stars mean safer cars.”

This simple but powerful concept gave auto manufacturers something to strive for. It created consumer demand for safer vehicles. U.S. NCAP proved once and for all that “safety sells.” This silenced the critics and inspired NCAPs all over the world.

The result is undeniable: new cars are safer. We can and should be proud of our legacy…because lives have been saved. Each of you has saved lives!

But…the promise that “more stars mean safer cars” isn’t quite true for us anymore. Here’s why.

Nearly all new cars rated by U.S. NCAP receive a 4- or 5-star safety rating. It happened because we didn’t set the bar higher. We have a name for this phenomenon: “starflation.” And it means the star rating doesn’t actually guide people in making safer purchase decisions.

But there’s an even bigger safety opportunity. A missed opportunity.

U.S. NCAP only rates how well a car does when a crash happens…but it does nothing to test how well it prevents a crash in the first place.

We’re only looking at half the story.

​In the year 2022, it’s simply unacceptable that a car in the U.S. can achieve a five-star safety rating even if it has ZERO collision-prevention and other driver assistance technologies.

That’s not the zero we’re looking for.

What we do instead is, at best, confusing to the public. At worst…it’s misleading.

Let me read you this from the NCAP website: “Look for vehicles with these driver assistance technologies.” And then it goes on to list things like forward collision warning, lane departure warning, automated emergency braking, and back-up cameras. The website calls them “recommended” features that have met certain “performance tests.”

The truth is that U.S. NCAP tests only to confirm whether these features are present — it’s “pass/fail,” not a grade or rating. And it’s not clear that these technologies are absent from the star rating.

In a perfect world, this is what U.S. NCAP would do: set minimum performance standards, test the technology features, rate them, and put that information somewhere all auto-buyers will find it: on the car window sticker. Just like crashworthiness ratings.

Just like the rest of the world does.

But the U.S. government doesn’t do this. Thankfully, organizations like IIHS have stepped up to fill the void. Their tests, like those conducted in other nations, reveal that not all manufacturers’ safety technologies are created equal. This is a fact many U.S. consumers are unaware of.

People buy 15 million new cars or light duty trucks in the U.S. each year. And they’re making a major purchase decision with incomplete information from their government. A purchase decision that we all know has massive safety ramifications — for the driver, the passenger, and all road users.

That’s 15 million missed opportunities to save lives.

Unfortunately, this problem is not new. Since 1995, the NTSB has issued 25 safety recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation modal agencies and vehicle manufacturers on the need to develop performance standards for collision avoidance technologies.

Think about that. NTSB’s oldest recommendation on vehicle safety technology predates most of the world’s NCAPs.

We’ve also been recommending for years that manufacturers should be required to make safety technologies standard in all new vehicles — not an upgrade.

This is a matter of transportation equity. We cannot tolerate a system where only the wealthiest can afford the safest cars. That’s not how we get to zero. It’s time our regulations reflect the belief that safety is a right — and should never be treated as a luxury.

It’s true that some manufacturers are voluntarily stepping up and doing this on their own. They’re doing it because Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, are requiring it. And it’s cheaper to make one model. People all over the world are reaping the benefits of your safety leadership — including us. Thank you.

I am hopeful that the latest attempt to update NCAP will succeed. Yes, we’ve been here before. But now we have Steve, my friend and safety partner, leading NHTSA. He’s the first Senate-confirmed Administrator in half a decade. There’s no one better than him to guide this work.

But even if we implement everything in the current plan, we’ll still lag many of you in other nations. That’s why we need to do more. And we need to do it faster.

Why? Because most people buy a new car once a decade, if they’re lucky. The average car on U.S. roads today is about 12 years old. This is a slow change, which is why we need to ensure the safest cars possible are on our roads TODAY. Now.

I think of it this way: people, especially the most vulnerable among us, are only as safe as the oldest car on the road.

That’s why we have to factor safety technologies into our NCAP ratings now. We must set performance standards for features on the market today. They’re not “emerging” technologies just because we don’t yet rate them!

These are features many other NCAPs are already testing, that the European Union is mandating, and which the NTSB has recommended mandating for years, like:

  • Forward collision warning, which Euro NCAP began rating back in 2009 and IIHS has been rating since 2013
  • Automatic emergency braking (AEB) — again, IIHS and Europe were early adopters
  • Pedestrian and bicyclist AEB — both were in Euro NCAP by 2018
  • Alcohol-detection technologies, which the NTSB has recommended since 2012
  • Advanced speed limiting technologies, which we’ve recommended since 2013
  • Motorcycle AEB, which Euro NCAP will begin testing next year. The NTSB recommended that NHTSA incorporate motorcycles in the development of performance standards for passenger vehicle crash warning and prevention systems in 2018.

Yes, it’s a long list! It’s a tall order.

This will require something many of you have in other nations. And that’s a whole-of-society commitment to solve the road safety crisis, a growing public health crisis. The political will to stop the relentless tide of death on our roads and on roads everywhere… and the willingness to see the whole safety picture — the whole system.

And that includes safe vehicles.

We have to lay it all on the line and stop at nothing…nothing…to get to zero. Not in five years, and certainly not in 10. Today. Now.

Only then will the U.S. once again be the vehicle safety leader we once were — and the safety partner each of you deserve. Thank you.​​