You know the 5-star safety rating system used by NHTSA and concerned car-buying parents all over America? The one that tells you that one star is a deathtrap, and five means effective immortality? Well, there’s a proposal out now to apply that same sort of thing to vehicle lighting. And yes, the amber/red indicator debate is a part of this.

There hasn’t been much press about this proposal, which was first made public in a document from mid-December outlining proposed new regulations for the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). Up until now, NCAP has mostly just provided ratings for car crash safety; assessing the effectiveness of what they call “visibility systems” is something new.

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Even though the public is invited to comment on these new proposed ratings, it’s not like NHTSA went out of their way to publicize anything—I found out about it from a source who pointed me to an article in Driving Vision News, a very expensive and low-volume publication for auto lighting industry people and lighting geeks like me, if I ever get the kind of cash to throw around on multi-grand trade publication subscriptions.

The criteria proposed for rating car lighting is interesting:

NHTSA intends to include three lighting safety features in this NCAP upgrade: Lower beam headlighting performance, semi-automatic headlamp beam switching between upper and lower beams, and amber rear turn signal lamps. Guided by the limited data that exist, the agency believes that these visibility systems offer positive safety benefits with minimal burden to the manufacturers.

The proposed lighting star ratings will be based on three things: low-beam performance, semi-auto high/low beam switching systems, and, most interesting to me, the presence of amber rear turn signals.

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Currently, the U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the world that do not require orange rear turn signals. Manufacturers can have them, but they can also just blink a red light back there, too. The data, though, seems firmly on the side of the amber lights. The Driving Vision News article gives a good breakdown:

2009 research by the agency concluded that amber turn signals give a crash-reduction effect of 5.3% versus red turn signals—a benefit larger than the 4.3% long-term benefit of the CHMSL. If the proposal is eventually implemented, it will be interested [sic] to see whether and at what speed automakers move from red to amber for American-market rear turn signals. But surely the question must be asked: if amber turn signals prevent significant numbers of crashes at reasonable cost, why are they not mandatory like the CHMSL?

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Nonetheless, the NHTSA analysis of the benefit of amber turn signals is quite substantial and rigourous, pointing out that they are more effective than red ones in 11 out of 32 types of potential-collision situations. An almost unbelievably detailed verification procedure has been devised to determine and document the colour of a vehicle’s rear turn signals, and test cars confirmed as having amber ones would receive six NCAP points not available to cars with red turn signals.

There’s a lot of interesting things brought up here. With all the research data available, why do we mandate a third high-mount brake light but still allow confusing red rear indicators? And, if this does go through, and cars will have another set of stars based on lighting, with amber rear indicators giving higher scores, will that influence more car makers to include them on their U.S.-market cars?

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I always was confused by why a car company would make a whole separate taillight lens for America, just to get rid of the amber indicator when they already had an amber version for the rest of the world. Is it just aesthetics? Wouldn’t it make more economic sense to just make one global lens?

It’s interesting, and it suggests that 2016 will be another exciting year in the always stupefyingly-thrilling world of vehicle indicator lamp design.

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I just hope we can avoid a repeat of the Side Marker Light Riots that shook the country in 1969, when regulations demanding lights and reflectors were enacted.


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.