- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

In what could be considered a tribute to the power of bad publicity, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is making a major change in its frontal offset crash-test program.

Insurance Institute engineers will now evaluate frontal crashworthiness of vehicles using test data from the automakers (in most cases), instead of doing its own crash tests. How things change.

Ten years ago automakers screamed that the institute’s then-new offset frontal crash test was so severe that it did not reflect real-world crashes. But the tests and media coverage encouraged the auto industry to change the way it designed cars.

The changes have been so successful that the institute says it no longer needs to continue the program in its current form. Instead it will focus on other areas of crash safety, said Adrian Lund, the president of the institute.

In the institute’s test, a vehicle hits a barrier at 40 mph, not head-on, but offset on the driver’s side. Because only part of the vehicle is being asked to absorb the crash energy, it is a severe test of the structure.

The only other public frontal crash test being conducted is under the federal government’s New Car Assessment Program; but its test is different. At 35 mph the entire front of the vehicle crashes into a barrier. It emphasizes how well the vehicle’s restraints protect the occupants.

Before the institute’s testing began in 1995, there hadn’t been a measurement of how well a vehicle’s structure would hold up in a frontal offset crash.

Not surprisingly, about half of the 80 vehicles tested in the first few years got the worst ratings of “marginal” or “poor.” The other ratings are “good” or “acceptable.”

Fast forward to 2006. Eighty-eight of the 106 current passenger-vehicle designs the institute has tested earn “good” ratings; none is “poor” and only two are “marginal.”

Now manufacturers will provide detailed information from their offset tests, including video. Why cooperate? Automakers want good ratings from the institute.

Institute engineers will evaluate this information, which meets requirements established by the institute. It will assign ratings as before and continue to publish the information on its Web site, www.iihs.org.

Lund said one advantage is that consumers will get more information faster because the institute doesn’t have to wait to buy a vehicle and then test it. Automakers can crash test a vehicle as soon as it begins production. Therefore, the institute can make the ratings available sooner and cover more vehicles.

Just to keep everyone on their toes, every so often the Insurance Institute will conduct a surprise “audit” and choose a vehicle for an offset crash test to verify the manufacturers’ results.

In addition, the institute will perform its own offset frontal crash tests under certain conditions. One example is when a completely new vehicle, such as the Subaru Tribeca, comes to market.

As vehicles are significantly redesigned, they will be tested if their immediate predecessors did not receive a “good” rating. The redesigned Chevrolet TrailBlazer will be crash-tested because the earlier model was rated “marginal.”

In the third, and what Mr. Lund says will be a rare instance, a vehicle will be crash-tested if it is “substantially changed in size, weight or body style.” The Dodge Caliber, which replaces the Neon, is one of those rare instances. Reasons it will be crashed include its completely different wagonlike body style and 400 extra pounds.

The first results, using manufacturer test data, were just released. The following received “good” ratings: Buick Lucerne/Cadillac DTS, Hyundai Azera, Toyota Camry, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer/Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Mercedes M-Class, Toyota RAV4, and Dodge Ram 1500.

The Chevrolet Impala received an “acceptable.”

The institute already has some information on how the new system works. The institute’s check of the data provided by General Motors about its test of the Impala caught a problem. Chevrolet concluded it had a vehicle with a “good” overall frontal crash rating in the offset test, Mr. Lund said. But when the institute went through the figures it found an error in GM’s calculations that lowered the rating to “acceptable.”

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