National Transportation Safety Board urges standard safety equipment on cars

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WASHINGTON — The government should require automakers to make the latest collision-prevention technologies standard equipment on all new cars and trucks, a move that could reduce fatal highway accidents by more than half, federal accident investigators said last week.

The technologies include lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and electronic stability control. They are available on many cars and trucks already, although some are limited primarily to higher-end models.

The National Transportation Safety Board said they should be required on all vehicles, despite the auto industry’s concern that doing so could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new car.

“We don’t want safety to be only for the people who can afford it,” said the board’s chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, adding that the cost per vehicle of mandated technologies usually drops as they become more widespread.

Such technologies can prevent accidents that involve running off the road, rear-ending another vehicle and lane-change maneuvers, the board said. Those types of accidents account for 60 percent of fatal highway accidents. There were more than 32,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. last year.

The Obama administration “should establish performance standards where still needed and mandate that these technologies be included as standard equipment in cars and commercial vehicles alike,” the board said in a statement.

Electronic stability control, which automatically applies brakes to individual wheels to restore control, is already required for new passenger vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds. Large pickup trucks, 15-passenger vans and commercial trucks that exceed that weight aren’t included in the requirement.

Lane-departure warnings alert drivers when a car wanders into another lane without signaling. Adaptive cruise control uses sensors to read traffic conditions and modulate the throttle and brakes to keep the car a safe distance from the vehicle in front of it. Forward-collision warnings monitor the roadway in front of the car and warn the driver of an impending collision. Some forward-collision systems will apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t take action to avoid an imminent collision. Similarly, automatic braking applies brakes to avoid an impending collision with another vehicle, person or obstacle.

The board included the recommendation as part of its annual list of “10 most wanted” safety improvements. The NTSB doesn’t have the power to set regulations, but its recommendations carry significant weight with Congress and federal and state agencies.

Some of the technologies were on the list in 2008, and the board previously has made piecemeal recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it set performance standards for some of the technologies or require manufacturers include them in some vehicles.

This is the first time the board is telling regulators and automakers that this new generation of technologies should be required on all vehicles, safety advocates said.

“What they are recommending is a safety system for cars where you have a multitude of things that cooperate together to dramatically improve safety in a vehicle,” said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group.

The recommendation got a chilly reception from automakers, which said it could drive up the cost of a new car.

Systems that warn drivers of an impending collision but don’t automatically brake cost about $1,000 to $3,000 per vehicle depending on the features, according government estimates cited by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Systems that both warn the driver of an impending collision and apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t act first, cost about $3,500, the alliance said.

“Automakers see great promise from their driver-assist technologies, and we are urging consumers to check them out, but the choice to purchase one or more belongs to consumers,” said Gloria Bergquist, the vice president of the alliance.

“In this still-fragile economy, maintaining affordability of new vehicles remains a concern,” she said. “Today, the average price of a new vehicle is $30,000, more than half the median income in the U.S.”

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the technologies can be added to cars relatively inexpensively.

“Some of this technology can be done for literally just a few dollars,” he said. “I don’t think we’re talking about adding thousands of dollars to a car.”

That’s because many of the safety features rely on the same electronic sensors and computers.

“Basically you are taking advantage of the sophisticated electronics in all modern automobiles,” Ditlow said.

MOST-WANTED SAFETY TIPS

Here is the National Transportation Safety Board’s annual list of its 10 most-wanted safety improvements. Several of them involve automobiles and highways.

VEHICLE-COLLISION PREVENTION: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should require manufacturers to include an array of collision-prevention technologies on all new cars and trucks. That includes lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and electronic stability control.

OPERATOR DISTRACTIONS: States and regulators should ban nonessential use of cellphones and other distracting devices by operators of cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and vessels. Companies should develop and vigorously enforce policies to eliminate distractions to their operators. Device manufacturers should assist by developing technology that disables devices when they’re within reach of operators.

SUBSTANCE-IMPAIRED DRIVING: A comprehensive solution is required. Technology such as ignition interlocks and continuous alcohol-monitoring devices can prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel. Developing new technology that can quickly and effectively test drivers for drugs is critical.

INTERCITY BUSES: Bus companies should do more to make sure their drivers are qualified. Drivers should have regular medical exams by authorized doctors. New bus companies should be required to demonstrate their fitness before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration OKs their operation.

AGING INFRASTRUCTURE: The government doesn’t provide sufficient inspector guidance for the owners and inspectors of the nation’s 600,000 bridges. The Federal Highway Administration should ensure bridge-inspector training is comprehensive and consistent across the country so that no issues are overlooked. There should be a national inspection standard that raises the bar for bridge and roadway integrity.

AIRPORT RUNWAYS: Use technologies that provide pilots with better situational awareness such as cockpit “moving maps” – computer screens that show the movements of other planes and equipment on runways and tarmacs. Runway status lights that show pilots when a runway is available can help, too. Air traffic controllers can provide pilots with more information such as maximum winds that may be encountered on takeoff or landing.

GENERAL AVIATION: The board investigates about 1,500 accidents a year involving mostly private pilots. Efforts should be made to improve pilot knowledge, skills and recurrent flight training. Tests and flight reviews should test awareness of weather, use of instruments and more sophisticated computerized cockpit displays.

PIPELINES: The government should improve its oversight of the pipeline industry. Pipeline operators should be routinely evaluated according to effective performance-based standards. Federal and state oversight agencies should work together to identify deficiencies. There should be drug and alcohol testing of employees when an accident occurs.

POSITIVE TRAIN CONTROL: Railroads and other train operators should put train-control systems in place that slow or stop a train that doesn’t obey signaling systems. Congress ordered the systems by 2015, but 10,000 miles of track were exempted from the mandate.

FIRE PREVENTION AND SUPPRESSION: Work to detect or suppress fire across all modes of transportation. Fire-detection devices could be installed in engine rooms of ferries and other vessels to give early warning to the crew. Intercity buses that monitor the temperatures in the wheel wells could prevent an impending tire fire. Fire-suppression systems in the cargo compartments or containers of cargo aircraft can lessen the threat.

– Associated Press


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