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Trucks and SUVs Force Change in IIHS Safety Tests

You know in Chernobyl when the radiation dosimeters go off-the-scale because they can’t accurately measure what’s flying around the room? That’s kind of what’s happening with trucks and SUVs when it comes to crash tests right now. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has come forward and admitted it needs a new safety test.

The recent study regarding truck safety may have foreshadowed this. Trucks and SUVs are getting bigger and more common—and current IIHS tests don’t capture the danger enough. So even though the crash tests say SUVs and trucks are getting safer, they may actually not be.

Why does the IIHS need to change its safety tests?

IIHS vs NHTSA barriers
IIHS (white) vs NHTSA (yellow) barriers | IIHS

Up until now, the IIHS has used an improved version of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s side-impact test. The NHTSA’s version—still in use—uses a movable barrier to impact the car’s side. However, the IIHS felt the NHTSA version didn’t reflect the greater risk of head injury that comes with impacts from taller vehicles.

And so, the IIHS used a taller barrier, mimicking the height and shape of the average 2003-era SUV or pickup (the test was introduced that year). The IIHS also used dummies that were more representative of a small woman or a 12-year-old. This combination meant the barrier smacked the side of the vehicle at the dummies’ heads. And, to their credit, the results spurred changes. Automakers wanted to get a good rating. So, they strengthened side structures and added side airbags—even before the federal government mandated the latter, the IIHS claims.

Even today, SUVs and trucks are constantly improving in safety. Even one model year can make a significant difference. Case in point, the Ram 1500. The 2019 model was recently named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, the first truck to do so. All these safety improvements should be a cause of celebration, right? Well, yes and no.

In the beginning, only 1 in 5 vehicles achieved a good rating. And today, only 1% don’t. And in 2011, the IIHS studied 10 years of crash data to determine that drivers of “good”-rated vehicles are 70% less likely to die in a side crash than drivers of “poor” vehicles. So, the side-tests did have a positive effect.

But people are still dying. The IIHS reports that 23% of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in 2018 came from side impacts.

What’s forcing the change

In a nutshell, big trucks and SUVs.

The IIHS went over real-world side crashes in another study. And the good news was that the current side-impact test does correlate well with real-world crashes. The dummies in the tests were showing the same kind of impacts that victims of crashes experienced. So, the test procedure itself wasn’t the problem. The problem was size and weight.

This study showed that modern side crashes are actually more severe than even the IIHS test. The current IIHS barrier weights 3300 lbs and hits at 31 mph. But because trucks and SUVs have gotten heavier, that weight is no longer average. The IIHS’ new barrier weights almost 4200 lbs and goes 37 mph. That may not sound like a lot, but just by increasing the speed by 6 mph added 42% more energy to the impact.

Current IIHS movable barrier causing test vehicle to roll away from impact
Current IIHS movable barrier causing test vehicle to roll away from impact | IIHS

But simply adding weight and speed wasn’t enough. In testing four good-rated vehicles—an Accord, a Camry, a VW Atlas, and an Infiniti QX50—the IIHS found that the barrier’s impact actually pushed the vehicles away.

IIHS side-impact test with real SUV causing test vehicle to roll into impact
IIHS side-impact test with real SUV causing test vehicle to roll into impact | IIHS

When the IIHS used an actual SUV instead of the barrier, the impact actually made the test vehicles roll into the oncoming SUV. The damage was also different. The barrier hits the test vehicle evenly and with a uniform stiffness, letting the B-pillars absorb more energy than in the real world.

Comparing IIHS side-impact test deformation between the barrier (white) and the SUV (yellow)
Comparing IIHS side-impact test deformation between the barrier (white) and the SUV (yellow) | IIHS

Therefore, to make the barrier more like a real-world truck or SUV, the IIHS is experiment with a new honeycomb face. The goal is to make it differently shaped and with a varying stiffness, more like a real truck’s front grille.

What the effects on trucks, SUVs, and cars might be

At first, likely nothing. As Jalopnik points out, the IIHS isn’t a government agency. It makes and enforces no laws. But their tests are an extremely valuable marketing tool, not to mention an important consumer focus. No one wants to drive around in an unsafe vehicle. Nor do they want to feel judged for choosing to buy a big truck or SUV. Jalopnik also notes that automakers will likely complain, “as they always do when someone drags them…into the future.”

IIHS developing new crash test
IIHS developing new crash test | IIHS

When this was announced on the r/cars sub-Reddit, the response was mostly that of interest. The users noted how difficult it’ll be to incorporate new crash structures into vehicles, especially because of that B-pillar issue. However, they also noted that the IIHS’ original side-impact test made a lot of improvements in safety. And, that many safety announcements nowadays are marketing.

This test is meant to better serve consumers by more accurately simulating a real-world crash. And it has the potential to move truck, SUV, and car safety forward. It’s a higher-range dosimeter.