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Too Early to Retire Crash Test Dummies

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an independent, non-profit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses — deaths, injuries, and property damage — from road crashes.  Wholly supported by auto insurers and insurance associations, in September 2009, IIHS marked its 50th anniversary by conducting what has become one of its most iconic crash tests— a 40 mph moderate overlap crash between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Malibu.

This test, which is viewable online, well illustrates the advancements in automotive safety during the five decades since the IIHS was founded.  Eight years on from 2009, the progress continues or, more accurately could even be described as accelerating, the latest statistics showing that “The chances of dying in a crash in a late model vehicle have fallen by more than a third in [the last] three years.”  

Conducted at IHS’s state-of-the-art vehicle safety research centre in Ruckersville, Virginia, today’s testing procedures and protocols are currently designed to evaluate two aspects of vehicle safety, crashworthinesshow well vehicle occupants are protected in a crash, and crash avoidance and mitigation—the effectiveness of the latest technology designed to prevent a crash or lessen its severity.

Crashworthiness is rated on a scale of good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on performance in five tests: moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.  Crash avoidance and mitigation systems are rated basic, advanced or superior, according to the type of system and performance in track tests.

Headlight illumination and glare, the first ever rating of such released March 30th, 2016, are rated good, acceptable, marginal or poor.  Today the vehicles with the highest safety ratings receive either a ‘top safety pick’ ranking or a ‘top safety pick plus (+)’ ranking.  To qualify for a 2017 TOP SAFETY PICK, a vehicle must earn good ratings in all the above-noted five crashworthiness tests as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

To qualify for 2017 TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn, in addition, an acceptable or good headlight rating. The IHSS website contains lists of all current and previous winners. Not all vehicles have been tested, but testing is ongoing and if you are car shopping, checking the IHSS website should be an essential step.

IHSS testing, along with the testing by auto manufacturers has prompted innovative technological responses, which in turn have invited new types and levels of testing.  Presumably, and hopefully, this evolutionary spiral will continue.  Russ Rader, IIHS’s director of communication, has been quoted as saying that with respect to crashworthiness (protecting occupants in a crash)the institute’s barrage of tests has “picked all the low-hanging fruit.”

The future of crash testing will be about assessing how well pre- and post-crash electronic systems are synchronized. The future is also expected to include the testing of automated (self-driving) technologies, and while this step towards attaining the ‘vision zero’ goal might render crash testing obsolete,  IHSS experts say it is still “far too early to retire the Institute’s crash-test dummies.”

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