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IIHS crash testing improves vehicle safety — will set bar higher

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash testing has led to life-saving improvement in occupant protection since it was introduced in 2003. The program has been so successful that the side ratings for current models are no longer helping consumers distinguish among vehicles or pointing the way toward further improvements, according to information in the IIHS December issue of “Status Report.”

An updated test should help. IIHS researchers and engineers have been weighing potential changes. A new test program with a higher impact speed and a heavier, more realistic movable barrier representing a more modern striking vehicle is expected to be launched next year.

When IIHS developed its current side crash test, it filled a need that had emerged with the rise in popularity of SUVs. At the time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was conducting side tests as part of its consumer information program, using a movable barrier with the height of a car. That test, still part of NHTSA’s ratings, doesn’t reflect the much greater risk of head injury from impacts with taller vehicles.

The IIHS test proved more challenging than the NHTSA test because the movable barrier mimicked the height and shape of the front end of the typical SUV or pickup on the road at the time. IIHS also used dummies representing a small woman or 12-year-old child, according to the IIHS.

To achieve a good rating in the test, auto makers strengthened side structures and equipped vehicles with head-protecting side airbags ahead of a federal regulation that made them essentially mandatory. Only about 1 in 5 vehicles tested earned good ratings in the beginning. Today, 99% of rated vehicles earn a good rating, and those that don’t are still acceptable.

But despite overwhelmingly good ratings for today’s vehicles, people continue to die in side crashes. Side impacts accounted for 23% of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 2018.

The severity of a side crash depends on both the weight of the striking vehicle and its speed. The movable barrier currently used in the IIHS side test weighs 3,300 pounds, says the IIHS. At the time the test began, many SUVs on the road were close to that weight, but they have gotten much heavier since then.

To better reflect the higher-severity crashes occurring in the real world, IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller and other IIHS engineers began a series of research tests at a higher speed — 37 mph instead of the 31 mph speed used in the current side rating test. They also made the movable barrier heavier, increasing its weight to nearly 4,200 pounds, the average weight of a 2019 model SUV.

“These changes might not sound like a big deal, but the 6 mph speed increase alone produces 42% more crash energy,” Mueller says. “Together with the weight increase, the modified test configuration has 82% more energy than our current side rating test.” This should result in even safer cars from the manufacturers.

We all owe our sincere appreciation to the IIHS and the improvements in automobile safety resulting from their continuing work.