The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began crash testing cars in 1995, at the tail end of Clinton’s first administration. Since then, the tests haven’t changed much, and cars these days regularly ace them. But now, the IIHS (the people who bring you the “Top Safety Picks”) will launch a new frontal crash test, one that’s more challenging and stricter than current standards. What will this mean for tomorrow’s cars? Well, for one, expect a higher dropout rate than West Point’s freshman year.
The new tests will pinpoint weak spots in a type of offset frontal collision, which occur more often than head-on collisions, or even the offset test that the IIHS currently uses. For many cars, the head-on crash aspect that the federal government tests for has been well covered with crumple zones, safety cages, and crush-zone structures. The IIHS’s offset frontal crash test has also resulted in good scores from most manufacturers, to the point that the Institute’s “Top Safety Pick” is rapidly turning into “everybody gets a trophy day.”
But for slightly offset crashes—such as when two vehicles hit head-on headlight-to-headlight, or if a vehicle hits a pole or tree—the areas around the front suspension, wheels, and firewall are weaker. Wheels can get pushed into the passenger compartment, damaging occupants’ legs. The IIHS calls these “small-overlap” crashes, and the new test evaluates a vehicle’s performance in this common form of collision. Most crumple zones don’t extend out to the vehicle’s edges, but it turns out these small-overlap crashes are a common source of injury, even among vehicles that the IIHS has been cited as performing well. Even with cars that scored Good or Acceptable, small offset crashes accounted for a quarter of serious or fatal accidents.
Hence, its inclusion into the IIHS’s frontal crash safety tests.
“Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the Institute and the federal government, but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year,” said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. “Small overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities. This new test program is based on years of analyzing real-world frontal crashes and then replicating them in our crash test facility to determine how people are being seriously injured and how cars can be designed to protect them better. We think this is the next step in improving frontal crash protection.”
In the test, a car is driven at 40 miles per hour into a rigid barrier that’s five feet tall, designed to replicate a tree or telephone pole. The barrier impacts 25 percent of the car’s front end: compare this to the IIHS’s existing overlap crash test, in which 40 percent of the car’s nose hits the barrier. No such tests are conducted by any other agencies, such as the NCAP tests in Europe; and only a few car companies go through with such tests.
The IIHS tested midsize luxury sedans first, as luxury cars usually have the newest and most advanced safety features. Based on the new criteria, only three out of 11 cars came away with Good or Acceptable ratings: the Acura TL and Volvo S60 were Good, while the Infiniti G scraped by with Acceptable. The Lexus IS bent its A-pillar and its footwell imploded, and the Mercedes C-Class’s hypothetical driver would have had his feet entangled in the pedals. The Volkswagen CC’s door fell completely off, something you won’t see in the company’s next round of print advertising.
Ultimately, the IIHS will bundle the small-offset test with its front crash tests for all 2013 models, though current 2012 cars which perform admirably—such as the Acura, the Volvo and the Infiniti—will be cited for their stellar performances. The IIHS has been continuously tightening its safety standards since 2006, but as Lund says, manufacturers have been rising to the occasion: “Manufacturers recognize that this crash mode poses a significant risk to their customers,” he said, “and have indicated they plan structural and restraint changes to improve protection in small overlap frontal crashes.”
Next up: the IIHS will test midsize sedans, such as the 2013 Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. For the highly competitive midsize segment, a good rating will be a huge boom in sales—and vice versa, of course.
IIHS Small Overlap Crash Test Results
- 2012 Acura TL – Good
- 2012 Volvo S60 – Good
- 2012 Infiniti G – Acceptable
- 2012 Acura TSX – Marginal
- 2012 BMW 3 Series – Marginal
- 2012 Lincoln MKZ – Marginal
- 2012 Volkswagen CC – Marginal
- 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
- 2012 Lexus IS 250/350 -Poor
- 2012 Audi A4 – Poor
- 2012 Lexus ES 350 – Poor