IIHS Tests Reveal Improved Vehicle Crashworthiness

After completing front, side, and rear crash test evaluations of eight small SUV models, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported last week that automakers are, by and large, getting it right and improving vehicle crashworthiness by installing important safety features and making them standard equipment. For example, IIHS said, for the first time, every model tested was equipped with standard electronic stability control.

Institute ratings of good, acceptable, marginal, or poor are based on results of front and side crash tests plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against whiplash injury in rear crashes. The best performers, earning the IIHS's Top Safety Pick award, were the 2009 Ford Escape, 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander, 2008 Nissan Rogue, and 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan. These 4 models earned good ratings in all 3 of the institute's evaluations, and all are equipped with standard electronic stability control and side airbags. The Escape's ratings also apply to the hybrid version, which is sold as the Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute as well as the Escape. IIHS noted that consumers now have multiple hybrid SUVs earning Top Safety Pick to choose from. Others include the midsize Saturn Vue and Toyota Highlander, which the institute evaluated earlier.

"In the latest tests, the Tiguan's performance is a standout," said IIHS President Adrian Lund. "It sailed through the front and side crash tests without a single downgrade for structure or measures of injury likelihood recorded on the dummy. This is one of four models in this group that afford superior crash protection in their class. This is a huge change from just five years ago when most small SUVs were rated either marginal or poor in our side test, and standard side airbags and electronic stability control were rare."

IIHS noted that electronic stability control is important because it can help drivers avoid many crashes. It helps drivers maintain control in the worst situation--loss of control at high speed--by engaging automatically when it senses vehicle instability and helping to bring a vehicle back into the intended line of travel, often without the driver knowing anything is wrong. This feature lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half, IIHS said, adding that it lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle rollover crash by as much as 70 percent.

The institute's frontal offset crash test, which began in 1995, drove major design changes in vehicles to do a better job of protecting people in the most common kind of serious crash. In the mid-1990s, few vehicles earned the top rating of good in the frontal test. Now nearly every vehicle is rated good for frontal protection. Since the Institute began its side tests in 2003, manufacturers have been following the same path, changing their vehicles to improve protection in serious side impacts.

An exception, IIHS said, is the 2-door 2008 Jeep Wrangler, which was tested without its optional side airbags. The previous version of the Wrangler, in which side airbags weren't available, earned a rating of marginal for protection in side crashes, and the new model performed even worse, earning the lowest rating of poor. A new problem was that the driver door opened during the impact. This didn't significantly affect the movement of the dummy during the test, but an open door in a crash could lead to partial or complete ejection of occupants.

"Most vehicles are being improved," Lund said. "We've rarely seen a vehicle go in the wrong direction and get a worse rating after it has been redesigned."

The Wrangler and Chevrolet Equinox, also a 2008 model, were the only two vehicles tested this time around without standard side airbags. The Jeep Patriot does have standard curtain airbags, but additional torso airbags designed to protect an occupant's chest and abdomen are optional. When side airbags are optional, the IIHS's policy is to test without the option because this is how most of the vehicles will be sold. A manufacturer may request another test with the optional airbags if the automaker reimburses IIHS for the cost of the vehicle. General Motors didn't request a second test of the Equinox, also sold as the Pontiac Torrent. After completing tests of this group of vehicles, IIHS learned that curtain airbags will be standard in the 2009 Equinox. This vehicle will be tested later this year.

Chrysler didn't request another test of the Wrangler with the optional side airbags, but the automaker did request a second test of the Jeep Patriot with optional torso airbags. When tested with the standard curtain airbags only, the Patriot earned the second lowest rating of marginal. While the curtains did a good job of keeping the driver and rear passenger dummies' heads from being struck by the barrier or hard structures inside the vehicle, forces on the driver dummy indicated that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely in a real-world crash of this severity. In the second side test of the Patriot with the optional seat-mounted torso airbags, this vehicle's rating improved to good.

Meanwhile, the revamped Escape, re-engineered for the 2009 model year with modifications to the frontal airbags and safety belts plus structural changes to improve occupant protection in frontal crashes, improved from acceptable to good in IIHS's frontal offset crash test. A new seat design improved the rear crash protection rating from acceptable to good. Side airbags, optional before 2008 models, now are standard.

IIHS said occupant protection in rear crashes generally is improving as automakers strive to earn Top Safety Pick awards. More seat/head restraints are doing a better job of protecting people from neck injuries. The Outlander, Rogue, and Tiguan as well as the Escape earned good ratings for their seat/head restraint designs.

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