Defects versus safety ratings

From Issue: 
Vol LIV No. 3, July 2010

Safety ratings indicate how well a car protects its occupants in a crash, compared with other models. The tests on which the ratings are based sometimes reveal safety defects but aren’t designed to do so. Ferreting out vehicle design defects that jeopardize safety and deciding what to do about them are the work of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation.

“If one of our crash tests finds a defect, we report it to NHTSA. We also tell the automaker, who might elect to fix the problem voluntarily and initiate a recall. If we believe a proposed fix will solve the problem, we report the findings to consumers and let them know that our published ratings apply only to vehicles that have been fixed. This has happened a number of times,” says Institute president Adrian Lund.

By the same token, the Institute would downgrade the crashworthiness rating of a vehicle that isn’t fixed. This virtually never happens, though, because disclosure is such a powerful incentive. Automakers usually hurry to fix any problems the Institute uncovers in its tests.

Most safety defects aren’t uncovered in crash tests conducted by the Institute or any other group. Most such problems are revealed by consumers who report problems to NHTSA. The agency monitors complaints, looking for trends indicating that a serious defect might exist, and then opens an investigation when a trend indicates this step is warranted. NHTSA is authorized to order automakers to recall vehicles and make repairs, based on investigations indicating serious safety problems in a vehicle’s design, construction, or performance.

“Think of crashworthiness ratings as general information about car safety, and then consult NHTSA about specific safety recalls,” Lund concludes. “Make sure a vehicle you’re thinking of buying hasn’t been recalled or, if it has, the problem has been fixed. Then it should be okay.”

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report Vol. 45, No. 4