Proposed Safety Rules Would Give Feds More Control Over Your Car

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
May 25, 2022 Updated: May 25, 2022

Federal regulators are considering new vehicle safety features and requesting public comments about the immediate changes, but it’s the agency’s future proposals under development that could give pause to consumers who are concerned about privacy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulates the auto industry in numerous ways, including the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which provides consumer information on the safety performance of new vehicles through a star rating system found on the manufacturer’s window sticker.

The new features under consideration for NCAP include blind spot detection, blind spot intervention, lane-keeping support, and pedestrian automatic emergency braking. NHTSA is accepting public comments about the changes through June 8.

But in the supplemental material included in the public comment document, NHTSA also revealed several smart technology features that the agency is developing for future NCAP updates.

If the agency has its way, you may never drive alone again.

Is someone in the car not wearing a seat belt? A transmission interlock could prevent the driver from starting the car or shifting into gear.

Are you in a hurry? Not so fast, lead foot. Intelligent speed assist would use GPS, cameras, and sensors in your vehicle and on the road to display the current speed limit and tell you to slow down, or the vehicle may independently slow to an appropriate speed on its own. All vehicles could be equipped with technology that limits engine power and top speed capability.

Are you feeling drowsy, sick, distracted, or drunk? Sensors on your steering wheel and eye-tracking cameras may monitor your condition and estimate your alertness. If your car decides you are impaired, it could independently reduce speed, perform a safe stop, and turn on the hazard lights.

You could also be locked out of cell phone use while in motion, or reminded that there is a baby in the back seat on a hot day.

The NCAP recommends manufacturers add “advanced driver assistance systems” (ADAS), and while the above ADAS are real ideas the NCAP hopes to advance in the next 10 years, they are in various stages of research and development.

It’s all detailed in an NHTSA document seeking public comments. The document explains how NHTSA intends to broaden the scope of NCAP to reduce fatal and injurious crashes by modifying driver behavior.

“NCAP has traditionally focused on crashworthiness technologies that protect the vehicle occupants in the event of a collision,” the document says. “The more advanced ADAS technologies that are the focus of this notice take the next step and provide technologies that can assist drivers, or in certain cases correct drivers’ action in ways that can avoid or mitigate crashes. NHTSA has also begun to consider ways NCAP could be used to encourage technologies that protect road users other than the vehicle’s occupants, such as pedestrians and cyclists.”

The document asks questions to generate comments, including, “What types of consumer acceptance information are available or are foreseen for implementation of different types of driver monitoring systems and associated mitigation strategies for driver impairment, drowsiness, or visual inattention? Are there privacy concerns? What are the related privacy protection strategies?”

But there is not a lot of focus on privacy concerns in the comments.

From across the nation, 13,600 comments had been submitted to NHTSA as of May 25, including some so similar that they seem to be modified letter templates, mainly in favor of proposed measures, some encouraging additional safety ideas.

Commenters suggest automatic detection systems that will sense and respond to pedestrians and cyclists. Many mention concerns about the size and height of pickup trucks and SUVs. One commenter suggested banning trucks and SUVs from congested centers of cities.

“Cars, and especially SUVs and pickup trucks, are getting too big,” one commenter wrote. “They already kill tens of thousands of people every year in America. Including people walking and biking who are not voluntary participants in this dangerous system of driving. Please do everything you can to shrink vehicles and make them safer to the people that walk and roll, unprotected, around them.”

Many comments speak of equity, such as using female crash test dummies to assess safety for women’s different body sizes.

“Female drivers are facing massive safety inequities,” one commenter wrote. “This NCAP proposal does not include updates to female crash test dummy requirements which could save thousands of lives each year. If a goal of the strategy is to improve the safety for all, women’s bodies must be considered in all of the same seating positions as male crash test dummies. As it stands, the strategy includes potential updates to the male dummies, but fails to address any potential updates for the female dummy. This will widen the safety gap even further. NCAP must require equality with the same quality of equipment and tests for female crash test dummies in all of the same tests as men.”

To submit a comment, visit the NHTA website under the New Car Assessment Program.

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: