Like so much else in the market-totalitarian United States of America, Big Brother would be hopping jealous of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not only does the agency get away with its name — as if “safety,” rather than danger, is the topic raised by “highway traffic” — but it also functions as a more or less open adjunct to the corporate car-sales effort.
Consider the issue of NHTSA “frontal crash tests,” the procedure that yields the “government 5-star ratings” that are a staple in automotive advertising. If the truth be told, these tests are merely another form of public subsidy to cars-first transportation. As a basis for making marketing claims, they are gold. As a source of legitimate information about the risks of owning and operating any particular car, however, they are close to meaningless.
This is so for two main reasons.
First, the NHTSA rates cars only within what it calls (in perhaps the only space in mainstream America where the “c”-word has legitimacy) “vehicle classes.” These are:
Passenger cars mini (PC/Mi) (1,500-1,999 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars light (PC/L) (2,000-2,499 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars compact (PC/C) (2,500-2,999 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars medium (PC/Me) (3,000-3,499 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars heavy (PC/H) (3,500 lbs. and over curb weight.)
Sport utility vehicles (SUV)
Pickup trucks (PU)
Thus, a vehicle “class” is really a weight-grouping.
And here’s the kicker: The NHTSA conducts crash tests only between vehicles belonging to the same weigh-class. It does not conduct tests of crashes between vehicles in different classes! Hence, the number of “government stars” a particular car gets is a measure only of how it compares in a crash with other vehicles of its own mass. The stars provide zero information about the safety of cars in crashes between “classes.”
Think this doesn’t matter? Consider this photo of a head-on collision at a mere 34 miles-per-hour between a medium-sized Audi Q7 SUV and a Fiat 500, a model about to be introduced by Chrysler/Fiat in the United States.
The result was worrying, for the passengers in the Fiat 500 at least, confirming the old adage that size does matter.
In particular, the testers noted that the driver of the Fiat 500 was very vulnerable as the driver’s airbag can force the driver’s head towards the A-pillar, which causes the upper body to come into contact with the steering wheel. ADAC also noted that the airbag burst shortly after deploying, and that the sheer force of the crash would have caused serious, life threatening injuries to the driver – especially in the neck, leg and pelvic areas.
In contrast, the Q7 fared much better than the Fiat 500. The injury risks for every passenger in the Q7 was low – while not even passengers in the back seats would have been spared from injury in the 500, despite it being a frontal crash.
ADAC concluded that the Fiat’s poor performance was due to the great mass of the Q7 and its front-flat structure which is not conducive to spreading the impact of crash energy. The results clearly demonstrate why consumers [sic] shouldn’t compare safety ratings between different classes. The Fiat 500, for example, garnered a five-star safety rating in its class from EuroNCAP, while the Q7 only managed to gain four stars.
Meanwhile, the second factor that renders NHTSA testing a joke is the fact that they are based on flat-frontal, not offset, impacts. To derive its scores, the NHTSA drives test cars straight and square into a wall. In the real world, of course, this kind of flush, symmetrical impact is extremely rare, as almost all auto collisions happen off-center and/or at angles, which has the effect of exerting the force of the crash on only a part of the vehicle, rather than through the whole frame. This, in turn, greatly multiplies the problem of “intrusion,” meaning the amount of the car that gets shoved into the spaces occupied by driver and passengers. Intrusion, of course, is one of the main risk factors for serious injury or death in car crashes.
The NHTSA star system measures neither inter-class nor offset collisions. The NHTSA star system, therefore, serves one purpose and one purpose only: permitting car corporations to make inflated safety claims in their advertisements.