Federal safety regulators are considering new vehicle safety ratings that would help older people and families choose the safest vehicles.
In a notice posted Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is planning to update its New Car Assessment Program and is mulling a “silver” rating that would assess the safety of the vehicle for older occupants, and a “family” rating for how well it protects rear-seat passengers, including children.
Both ratings would be in addition to NHTSA’s five-star assessment program that’s been in place since 1978.
“As the U.S. population shifts in coming years, more vehicle drivers and passengers will be 65 and older,” NHTSA said of the proposed silver rating, adding that older vehicle occupants are typically less able than younger people to withstand crash forces.
Ultimately, older consumers could use the information to help them buy vehicles that would be potentially safer for them, NHTSA said. “For example, inflatable seat belts or technologies that help prevent low-speed pedal misapplication may have potential benefits for older occupants,” the agency said.
Ford Motor Co. is offering inflatable seat belts for the rear seats, and says they are now being ordered in more than 30 percent of Explorers. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unit said last year it is adding the devices to its 2014 S-Class.
Buyers could use the family rating to compare which cars best protect passengers in the rear seat, NHTSA said.
“The agency is aware that consumers often wish to know which vehicles are the safest for their children,” NHTSA said. “Thus, providing a crashworthiness rating for vehicles based on the protection they offer to both front-seat adult occupants and rear-seat child occupants would support consumer interests.”
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said he thinks automakers will want to reach out to groups like families and senior citizens.
He noted there are attributes that some drivers want.
“These are all things that hopefully we can highlight for people to make better buying decisions,” Strickland told reporters on Thursday.
He said that growing numbers of older people “are buying cars… They are driving longer, they are more active… They probably have more resources to, frankly, buy more expensive cars.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which is the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others, said it will work with NHTSA on the proposal. “We welcome this notice and will have lots of constructive comments as we fully review it,” spokesman Wade Newton said.
NHTSA also is considering adding the results of crash tests of a small adult in the rear seat to its frontal crash rating.
“An expansion of this concept would be to explore the potential for adding advanced child dummies to one or more of its crashworthiness test modes and explore the feasibility of providing consumers with a ‘family star rating,'” the agency said.
NHTSA plans to use the data obtained from its research to support development and evaluation of an advanced 6-year-old child frontal impact dummy, followed by 3- and 10-year-old child frontal impact dummies.
It is also considering whether to include information on vehicle labels about new technologies such as blind-spot detection systems, advanced frontal lighting and lane-departure warning systems. It also is considering adding pedestrian safety technologies to the program.
Strickland said a new overhaul for the ratings might take three or four years to put in place.
Elderly driving is a big issue for safety officials. By 2025, more than 20 percent of drivers will be older than 65; by 2030 there will be 57 million elderly drivers, compared with the 32 million on the roads today.
Older drivers are more likely to wear safety belts and avoid drunken driving and speeding, and while they get into fewer crashes, they are more likely to die or be injured when they do.
More senior drivers, who may have few transportation options, are holding on to their licenses longer. About 78 percent of people over age 70 are licensed, up from 73 percent in 1997.
Those drivers are three times as likely as motoristsages 35-54 to be killed in a crash, but that’s down from 3.5 times in 1997.
Eyesight diminishes, especially at night, and some seniors have more trouble turning their necks to check traffic.
NHTSA last revised its “Stars on Cars” program in 2010, giving drivers a single overall score for the first time. It added information on whether autos have advanced safety features, such as lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems.