- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Raul Arbelaez may have wrecked more cars in his career than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s up to 40 — and almost all of them were totaled.

The 28-year-old Charlottesville resident is unfazed. He has never been hurt in a crash, and he confidently drives a Volkswagen Passat back and forth to work.

Mr. Arbelaez is a senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It’s his job to smash cars head-on into metal blocks, slam simulated sport utility vehicles into the sides of passenger vehicles, and sometimes to point cars at each other and let ‘em rip.

“When the really nice cars come in, it’s kind of upsetting to see them destroyed. But you immediately realize the importance of this kind of test,” Mr. Arbelaez says at the institute’s vehicle research center in Ruckersville, Va.

The wrecks are carefully documented, and the impact of 40-mph head-on collisions or 30-mph side crashes are measured in detail.

The engineers at the institute want to know what happens to skulls, spines and other body parts when the laws of physics get violent, metal bends, glass and plastic smash and air bags deploy as a vehicle slams to a halt.

Mr. Arbelaez and a team of institute engineers and technicians last month sent a 2003 Honda Pilot racing down a runway and into an aluminum block that simulates the front end of a car. The test is designed so that the car hits the block at a slight angle.

The SUV is rigged with a number of instruments to record the impact.

Most important, a dummy, used to simulate a human, is arranged carefully behind the wheel. The mannequin — representing a 5-foot, 10-inch-tall, 170-pound man — is a sophisticated piece of equipment, worth about $100,000 when fully equipped.

Mr. Arbelaez says that about 40 channels of data from the dummy and three from the car run into a computer. From the moment of impact, each channel records 10,000 measurements per second.

“From the data, we look at the forces that affected the dummy — the head, neck and legs — and information that indicates whether or not brain injury or skull fracture is likely,” Mr. Arbelaez says.

About six to eight hours of work goes into preparing the car and the dummy.

Just before the collision, about a dozen people swarm the car in the climate-controlled prep room — fellow engineers, technicians and a camera crew from a television network.

The staff moves from the prep room to the crash site a few minutes before the SUV is sent hurtling down a runway, pulled by a cable at 40 mph.

Overhead lights flood the room so that high-speed cameras can record the event. There is a countdown, a whir of the approaching Honda, a huge whump of crushing metal and cracking plastic, and finally the steady bleat of the Pilot’s horn after the car comes to a rest.

Workers move in to make a quick assessment and do some immediate cleanup as engineers approach with computers to take measurements.

After a few minutes, it becomes apparent that the dummy didn’t fare too well.

“There is a high likelihood of skull fractures or serious brain injury,” Mr. Arbalaez says.

It will take some time to know exactly what happened and issue a final assessment, but it looks as if the driver’s head pushed through the air bag into the steering wheel, then bounced back, shot outside the window and slammed into the door frame.

The final results will be compiled, as will be results involving a batch of new midsize SUVs, and formally released midfall by the institute. Ratings of good, acceptable, marginal or poor are assigned for structure, restraints and simulated injuries.

The institute, whose headquarters are in Arlington, is a nonprofit research organization funded by auto insurers. But insurance companies pay only passing attention to the data, relying instead on their own experience with vehicles.

“Safety ratings are a very good indicator of how safe a particular car is for the passenger. But they do not necessarily correlate to lower or higher insurance premiums,” said Paul Berry, a spokesman for USAA, a San Antonio-based insurer that works with and supports the institute.

An estimated 42,850 people died on U.S. public roads and highways last year — the highest number since 1990 — and 2.9 million were injured, according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency that also conducts crash tests.

The biggest increase in occupant fatalities was reported in pickup trucks, SUVs and vans, the NHTSA said.

When choosing what to wreck, the institute prefers popular classes of vehicles, reflecting consumer trends, and buys them at dealerships. Car company executives are consulted and watch the crashes, but they do not have a say over the final published results, Mr. Arbelaez says.

In addition to the head-on crashes, the institute also recently started publishing results for side-impact incidents.

“That is the big project I was on from the beginning,” says Mr. Arbelaez, who has worked at the institute for four years.

The remnants of the tests litter the research center. Twisted corpses of Subarus, Toyotas, Chevrolets and other models attest to the impact of a 3,300-pound SUV ripping into the side of another vehicle at 30 mph.

“Side impact is a very severe test,” Mr. Arbelaez says.

He says head injuries frequently result from side impacts, and praised side air bags. But he added that the tests also are designed to make manufacturers aware of the destructive power of SUVs, and have them design cars that perform well when struck.

But there are limits to design.

“Any time you get a huge disparity of mass, the laws of physics dictate that the heavier mass will have an impact,” he says.

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