NHTSA Study Confirms New Cars Are Safer, Regulations Not a Scam


You might want to sit down for this one. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a study this week showing older cars without modern day safety hardware are — and I’m sorry to say this — far more dangerous than newer vehicles. Unbelievable, right?

Of course not. As tacked on and obnoxious as a lot of safety regulations often seem, they are delivering onto us safer automobiles. The old maxim of “they don’t build cars like they used to” is absolutely true, but not in the way your grandfather meant it. According to data compiled from the U.S. government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) between 2012 and 2016, fatal incidents occurred in older model-year vehicles at a much higher rate than their newer counterparts. Not surprisingly, the NHSTA also suggested the severity of an occupant’s injuries increase the older a vehicle gets.

Still, the disparity between the vehicle age groups is surprisingly vast.

Incidents that resulted in death saw 26 percent of occupants riding in 2013-17 model-year autos perish, while 55 percent died in cars in models dated 1984 or older.

However, the data is somewhat generalized and doesn’t take the finer details into account. One reason newer vehicles statistically perform better in crashes is because they weigh so much more. In an attempt to highlight the crashworthiness of modern automobiles, the Australasian New Car Assessment Program chucked two Toyota Corollas at one another last year. One was from 1998 and the other was from 2015.

To the surprise of no one, the newer car fared much better in the test. But what really surprised testers is just how ravaged the older Toyota ended up. A lack of driver restraint systems allowed the dummy to bounce around the interior like a pinball while structural failures resulted in the total deformation of the cabin. A lot of that has to do with where and how the vehicle is reinforced, but weight also plays a factor — and a 2015 Corolla outweighs the 1998 model by about 400 pounds.


This isn’t the case for every single model. Some have gotten lighter, but the general trend over the last 15 years is for most cars to pack on the pounds. The prevalence of SUVs has also bulked up average weight. On the road, this translates into more opportunities for two-ton trucks to go head-to-head with a 1,900-pound Geo Metro.

That doesn’t make the NHTSA’s data bogus. Had those two Corollas shared an identical curb weight, the newer model would probably still have shined far brighter in the crash test. But it does explore one more reason why the older cars did so poorly in the study.

The NHTSA attributed continued gains in vehicle safety systems as the primary reasons newer cars performed so well. That progress was also shown in the FARS analysis. Here is the proportion of occupants killed in a crash, broken down by vehicle model year, according to the study:

1984 and older — 55 percent
1985-1992 — 53 percent
1993-1997 — 46 percent
1998-2002 — 42 percent
2003-2007 — 36 percent
2008-2012 — 31 percent
2013-2017 — 26 percent

Included with the study was a “pocket shopping guide” intended to help motorists better understand driver assistance technologies. While an invaluable hunk of consumer data in a world where the average driver appears to have next to no understanding of how these technologies work, we’d have preferred seeing the agency take it a step further by warning drivers not to over-rely on these systems. The NHTSA actually seems more interested in convincing shoppers the technologies are safe.

In one section of the pocket guide, a short FAQ asks: “Do these driver assistance technologies make my vehicle more vulnerable to hacking?” Interestingly, it doesn’t give a yes or no answer. Instead, we get the explanation that the Department of Transportation and automotive companies “consider cybersecurity a critical issue for the future safe deployment of these technologies.”

Research has shown that motorists are far too trusting of advanced driving aides. Many systems can also lead to diminished skills and absentmindedness, despite providing an additional safety net. We also know that connected cars are at a far greater risk of hacking — not just because we’ve seen that it is theoretically and technically possible, but also because older cars don’t have the electronic systems required. While that shouldn’t scare you away from purchasing a new vehicle, we’d like to see the NHTSA operating at maximum objectivity. Otherwise, it makes it seem like they’re trying to hawk new cars and tech on behalf of the automotive industry.

[Image: Institute for Highway Safety]