Crash test: An inside look at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

This 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air performed poorly in a front crash test. The engine pushed back into the driver’s side of the car. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)
Located off of a country road just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, is a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to reducing losses from crashes on the nation’s roadways known as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The IIHS conducts scientific studies on everything from headlights and auto crash safety to the impact of alcohol and drugs on drivers. The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) complements this mission by collecting information from the insurance market and analyzing the data to determine loss patterns by vehicle make and model.

Behind-the-scenes look at IIHS safety research

The members of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) had the opportunity to drive some of the cars being analyzed at the facility, learn about the testing conducted by IIHS, and observe a crash test as part of a tour for the organization’s Future of Auto Summit in July.

IIHS was founded in 1959 and began testing the crashworthiness of vehicles in 1995. Upon entering the testing center, several vehicles in the lobby show the very real results of the their crash tests. IIHS buys each of the cars tested because they want to ensure they are using the exact same vehicles available to the public.

Related: Are we safe drivers? Apparently not…

A walk through the facility highlights just how important this research is for manufacturers and their customers. The testing conducted by IIHS has encouraged auto manufacturers to make significant changes in the design of their vehicles and enhance or develop new safety features.

Here is an overview of some of the testing that takes place at IIHS:

The vehicle on the left shows the difference in the impact using new technology to protect cars that crash into a tractor trailer. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Side underride testing

Over 400 people are killed each year when vehicles crash into the rear or side of a large truck or trailer, and the majority of the time it is the auto driver and not the truck driver who is at fault. To test the impact of underside protection guards on tractor trailers, IIHS crashed a pair of Chevrolet Malibus into a tractor trailer.

In the first test, the tractor was outfitted with an AngelWing, an underride protection device that prevents a vehicle from going under the trailer in a crash. While the AngelWing did bend in the crash, it prevented the vehicle from sliding under the trailer.

Since the car’s airbags and seatbelts were able to restrain and protect the test dummy, the test demonstrated that a real-world occurrence of a similar accident would reduce the likelihood of serious injuries for the Malibu’s driver. Manufacturers continue to improve trailer safety to lessen the impact in a crash.

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Running into a midsize car is very different from running into a stationary wall. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Vehicle size and weight

When it comes to car crashes, size does matter. One of the tests IIHS conducted was to determine what happened when a midsize 2009 Mercedes Benz C300 crashed into a tiny 2009 Smart Fortwo. IIHS found that tiny cars did not do well in a crash with a mid-size car because the larger car will force the smaller vehicle backwards, causing more damage to the occupants.

And given the laws of physics, larger, heavier vehicles are safer in a crash than smaller, lighter cars. However, the newer hybrids have been found to be safer in a crash because the battery adds about 10% to the total weight of the car.

In the moderate overlap test, approximately 40% of the width of the car strikes a barrier at 40 mph on the driver’s side. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Front crash tests

The 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport (top) was found to be one of the worst-performing cars ever tested in the IIHS frontal crash test program. The manufacturer used the test information to make improvements for its Chevrolet Uplander minivan, which earned a “good” rating in the frontal offset test. The 1998 Toyota Sienna (bottom) earned a rating of “good” in the same test.

IIHS doesn’t test every vehicle made, but tends to select those with the greatest marketshare in the midsize and SUV markets. They usually do not test vehicles over 5,000 pounds or expensive niche vehicles, however, manufacturers can nominate a vehicle to be tested. If the vehicle is selected, IIHS will buy the vehicle and test it, and the manufacturer may reimburse IIHS for vehicles it didn’t plan to test.

Related: More speed cameras needed to cut road deaths, U.S. watchdog says

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 95% of single car rollovers begin when a car is tipped and its tires leave the road. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Testing roof strength

When IIHS began testing roof strength in 2012, 7,559 people were killed and 25,277 were injured in rollovers. The government standard at the time was that a roof had to be able to withstand one-and-half times a car’s weight before crushing in five inches.

Now that standard has changed to being able to support four times a vehicle’s weight before being rated as “good.” The Institute’s research has shown that improvements in rollover safety have reduced injury and fatality rates by more than 30% in rollover crashes.

IIHS has dummies of various sizes that record movements during a crash. (Photo: P. Harman, propertycasualty360.com)

These dummies are really smart

In a crash scenario, dummies simulate the human response — how the body reacts, moves and the resulting injuries. IIHS has 10-12 dummies that they use on a regular basis. Each one can cost as much as $200,000 since they have sensors to measure what actually happens during the crash. The information is captured by computers, and the dummies need to be recalibrated every 75 crashes to ensure the information they are recording is correct.

Related: Here’s how self-driving cars are already impacting cities and towns

(Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Crash avoidance technologies

Checking out some of the new auto technology also falls under the purview of IIHS. Under their new, dome-covered test track, engineers test how well vehicles’ crash avoidance technologies operate. The four major areas investigated are:

Car-to-car autonomous braking

Rear autonomous emergency braking


Pedestrian autonomous emergency braking

NAMIC members were allowed to test some of these technologies, which work fairly well, although the back-up parking assist had some difficulty backing into a parking space and one of the autos failed to stop in the car-to-car autonomous braking test. Fortunately, no drivers, passengers or autos were hurt.

The warnings only detect if a crash is about to happen, literally slamming the brakes on to prevent a crash if the driver fails to take any action. During the tests, the cars were only traveling at 11 mph.

Other technologies being tested include lane departure warnings, which have been found to trigger false positives, and adaptive headlights which swivel based on steering input and follow the road as a vehicle turns.

The Tesla Model S and drive forwards and backwards remotely without a driver for short distances. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Semi-autonomous vehicles

IIHS is also testing a Tesla Model S to see how well it performs on a number of road conditions. The car is capable of running autonomously, but the driver must still be behind the wheel and paying attention to where the car is going and any surrounding vehicles.

When in car following mode, a Tesla will follow the car in front of it, even if the other vehicle drives off of the road. In autopilot, the Tesla can lose the lane lines and may move to the side of the road or guard rail if the driver isn’t paying attention. Many drivers believe that they don’t have to pay attention when behind the wheel of an autonomous car, but that is misleading. Even autonomous vehicles require input from human drivers when on the road.

Related: Autonomous vehicle technology could shrink auto insurance sector by 71%

This 2017 Honda accord was used to test the impact on the passenger side of the vehicle. (Photo: P. Harman/propertycasualty360.com)

Crash test

IIHS also conducts actual crash tests to determine the results of a variety of impacts. The tests are conducted on an indoor track and the results allow manufacturers to see how well their cars perform during a specific type of crash — e.g., passenger side, driver’s side, rear or front collision. Manufacturers whose cars have higher safety ratings often see a boost in sales after winning a safety award from IIHS. Those whose cars don’t perform as well take the information to incorporate changes to make their vehicles safer.

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