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As NHTSA joins rest of world on pedestrian safety tests, bicyclists are left out

According to the vision statement on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s website, “NHTSA aims to be the global leader in motor vehicle and highway safety.”

But, in both its actions and words, NHTSA is a follower.

This wasn’t always the case. In 1979, NHTSA was a leader and created the first New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). NCAP is a non-regulatory approach to vehicle safety that relies upon testing to provide information to the public about the safety of vehicles so that people can make informed choices when they go to purchase a vehicle. You’ve probably seen these ratings in ads from car manufacturers touting their “5-star Safety Rating”. The NCAP was so effective, other countries around the world have created their own NCAPs. Now, those global NCAPs are stronger, more effective, and continuously innovating to make safer cars and the agency that created NCAP sits by and lets other nations show leadership on safety. .

Over the last eighteen months NHTSA has refused to include bicyclists in safety standards and required testing multiple times, the most recent  example comes in NHTSA’s recent Request for Comments on incorporating pedestrian crashworthiness standards into NCAP. (The others include two opportunities to include cyclist Automatic Emergency Braking in either the NCAP or in new car standards, and the decision to not include the fatalities of serious injuries and fatalities of Vulnerable Road Users in truck side underride guards.)

In other countries, pedestrian crashworthiness is usually tested by a physical crash test with a crash test dummy. The dummy is fitted with sensors that record the force of impact when hit by the tested vehicle and where impacts occur. Injury values are then computed from sensor readings and scored. Each NCAP program uses some variation of a 5-star rating and the scored injury values typically inform the 5-star rating. In NHTSA’s proposed pedestrian crashworthiness standards, automakers will self-assess rather than have their vehicles physically tested and the scoring will not inform the 5-star rating, with the goal of making the proposal quicker to implement.

Pedestrian crashworthiness was first introduced in the European version of NCAP (EuroNCAP) in 1997, more than 25 years ago. According to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, as of 2019 Vulnerable Road User Impact Protection was tested in five of the eight NCAPs worldwide, including those used by China, Australia, Japan, Korea, and Europe. In 2020, the NCAP for Latin America & the Caribbean incorporated pedestrian crash tests. Currently, only the NCAPs for Southeast Asian countries (launched in 2011), and the US (created in 1979) lack this type of testing. Finally, with its request for comments and with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at levels not seen in 40 years, the U.S. – through NHTSA – is tentatively proposing a limited version.

In NHTSA’s request for comments, the safety needs of people who bike and the League of American Bicyclists’ advocacy on behalf of people who bike are recognized. The official notice says, “Many individuals who support initiatives from the League of American Bicyclists suggested that NHTSA should incorporate bicyclists into the Agency’s assessment of pedestrian safety.” But, NHTSA is not swayed. 

Instead, NHTSA goes out of its way to choose inaction by inserting a new, never before seen, qualifier onto its four established criteria for including a test into NCAP. Where once only the mere existence of an objective test had to be met, now that criteria must be “widely accepted.” The path forward NHTSA has chosen is monitoring the work of EuroNCAP, which currently tests for cyclist impact, and seeing if such testing becomes a “widely accepted” objective test that it can later “reassess” for inclusion.

In addition to all of this, NHTSA has also failed people who bike in other areas of its work, as well. As one example, NHTSA has failed to include both cyclists and pedestrians among the potential lives saved in the cost-benefit analysis used for the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking requiring side underride guards for large trucks published in 2023 (NHTSA-2023-0012). In fact, the lives of all vulnerable road users, including motorcyclists, were excluded and ignored.

If NHTSA is to again be a global leader for vehicle safety, it cannot formally create a policy of following. A policy of waiting for others to develop and “widely accept” tests for vehicle safety. A policy that makes the safety of Americans dependent on the leadership of other nations. While NHTSA’s passive approach to developing the testing capacity for bicyclist tests may preclude it from incorporating bicyclist safety today, it must commit to being the global leader it claims it has a vision to be – and that includes leading on bicyclist safety testing, including bicyclist crashworthiness testing.

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