New Crash Tests Aimed At Boosting Front-Passenger Safety

One of the enduring criticisms of new-vehicle crash-testing programs is that it’s difficult for consumers to determine which models under their consideration are indeed safest when most, if not all of the cars or trucks evaluated boast perfect scores. Automakers, of course, love to tout exemplary crash-test ratings in their ads, but some industry observers argue that today’s cars and trucks are simply being engineered to pass the tests, which are conducted by both the federal government’s National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the industry-supported Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Though NHTSA is slow to adapt its methods, one assumes given its bureaucratic underpinnings, the IIHS upholds the cars and trucks it tests to increasingly stricter standards by steadily rolling out new crash tests and tightening its criteria for a car or truck to earn its “Top Safety Pick+” recommendation. In 2013, the IIHS added its so-called small overlap frontal crash test that replicated the effects of a car hitting a tree or utility pole on the driver’s side of a vehicle at 40 mph. A fair number of models initially had problems with the offset test, but automakers subsequently strengthened their cars’ passenger compartments and in some cases extended the bumper and even added larger side-curtain airbags to meet the stricter standards. More recently, the IIHS began testing cars to determine the effectiveness of their forward collision-preventing auto-braking systems.

Now the IIHS is upping the ante again by introducing a passenger-side version of the aforementioned small overlap crash test after determining that while many vehicles did a superior job of protecting the driver under such circumstances, some didn’t safeguard the front passenger as effectively.

As with the original iteration, the new passenger’s-side small-overlap test evaluates the crashworthiness of a car’s outer edges that tend not to be well protected structurally by so-called crush zones, and also test a vehicle’s airbags and seatbelts in more rigorous ways that do frontal tests. Crash forces in these types of collisions go directly into the front wheel, suspension system and firewall.

The first group of models to undergo the IIHS’ passenger-side small overlap frontal crash test were midsize cars. While they fared better than did most of the vehicles that were initially subjected to the driver-side small overlap test, of the 13 models tested, one, the Volkswagen Jetta, earned just an “acceptable” rating while two sedans, the Chevrolet Malibu and Volkswagen Passat, were ranked as being “marginal” (in both of the latter cases the passenger’s crash-test dummy’s head slid off the front airbag and contacted the dashboard).

The remaining 10 vehicles tested were given top “good” marks for the passenger-side small overlap crash test. These include the 2017 Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Lincoln MKZ, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Nissan Maxima, and the 2018 Subaru Legacy and Outback, and Toyota Camry. The IIHS cites the Subaru models are performing especially well in the new offset test, with measures taken from the passenger’s side dummy showing there would be a low risk of injury in a similar real-world crash.

“The midsize cars we tested didn’t have any glaring structural deficiencies on the right side,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Becky Mueller. “Optimizing airbags and safety belts to provide better head protection for front-seat passengers appears to be the most urgent task now.”

It should be noted that while the IIHS says offset collisions, as tested, can cause serious leg and foot injuries, they’re not necessarily fatal. Being supported by the insurance industry, critics say the IIHS is looking to keep accident claims low as much as it is trying to save lives and prevent serious injuries.

Again, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Expect other new-vehicle segments to undergo the IIHS’s new passenger-side small overlap crash tests in the coming months. Click here for more information and for a fully detailed chart comparing the performance of each midsize car tested according to various criteria.