WASHINGTON - A lack of funds has forced the federal government to scale back its closely watched five-star safety rating for vehicle crash tests.
Federal regulators will conduct 58 vehicle crash tests in the 2000 model year, down from 63 scheduled for this year and 70 in 1998.
Despite a budget surplus, officials are scaling back the New Car Assessment Program operated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
'It's not even sand pebbles in the whole big budget picture,' said James Hackney, the agency's director of crashworthiness standards.
Hackney lamented the money shortage. He argued that penny-pinching is unwise because the crash ratings helped compel manufacturers to make safer vehicles.
The agency will have about $2.6 million to spend on the program in fiscal 2000, down from about $2.8 million for 1999.
The agency had requested $5.3 million, but Congress and the White House settled on the lower figure.
The funding shortage means consumers won't be able to get information about certain makes and models, Hackney said. Still, the agency said it will have accurate frontal-crash scores for 74 percent of new vehicles to be sold in the current model year. That is possible because NHTSA carries over previous results for unchanged vehicles.
Up-to-date side-impact scores will be available for 72 percent of vehicles sold, the agency said.
For front-impact scores, the agency rams vehicles into a solid barrier at 35 mph. That's 5 mph faster than safety standards require. For side-impact ratings, a movable barrier is rammed at 38.5 mph into the sides of cars and trucks. That also is 5 mph faster than regulations require.
Actually, the government crashes and rates a few more vehicles each year than it lists on its schedule. The number is boosted when manufacturers bring out new or updated models and pay to have them tested so they can include scores in promotional material.
General Motors, for example, asked the agency to test the 2000 Chevrolet Impala last spring in the frontal crash. It got the highest five-star rating for both the driver and the passenger.
Automakers, who earlier resisted the testing, now frequently include the scores in advertisements if their vehicles do well.
There is no failing score. Vehicles get one to five stars depending on the amount of protection provided to belted occupants, and the information is made available for consumers.