Cars are safer than ever before, yet drivers are still being injured at alarming rates. Why is that? We’re padded in balloon-like airbag compartments with crush zones and safety cages designed to absorb crash energy so our bodies won’t. Even our knees are protected by airbags in some vehicles! Yet there are still over 10,000 deaths from frontal crashes each year. Why? Small overlap frontal crashes.
Certainly there are unsurvivable crashes. That’s a given. But we can improve our vehicles even more in small overlap frontal crashes. What’s a small overlap frontal crash? It’s that thin slice of area to the left or right of the engine, where the front fenders are. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has designed a new crash test for that area and the majority of midsize luxury and near-luxury cars earn only marginal or poor ratings in this test. Only two IIHS 2012 Top Safety Pick cars, the Acura TL and the Volvo S60, earn Good ratings, while the Infinity G earns an Acceptable rating. The new test has 25% of the vehicle’s front end striking a 5 foot tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. The dummy used is the 50th percentile male Hybrid III. IIHS is currently the only entity performing the test.
Vehicle manufacturers, to this point, have designed vehicles that perform well for current frontal crash tests, meaning the crush zones protect occupants in head-on or offset collisions. There’s no structure on the edge of many vehicles for occupant protection, which is why small overlap frontal crashes are so deadly. In a 2009 IIHS study, nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes that involved serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants were due to small overlap crashes in vehicles that received good frontal crash ratings.
In a small overlap frontal crash, the crash forces go to the outside edges of the vehicle. The affected side’s wheel, suspension system, and firewall are pushed back. The A-pillar (the main pillar that holds your windshield and blocks your view) can be pushed back into the passenger compartment and footwells can be compromised. It’s also a gray area for airbags. Frontal airbags are designed to go off for this type of impact, but side and torso airbags may or may not deploy, depending on the algorithms some manufacturers use in adjusting their airbag sensitivity. Side airbags are generally designed to deploy when a vehicle is hit on the side, as when you’re T-boned. Because the steering column moved to the right in the Lincoln MKZ, the dummy’s head and chest completely missed the front airbag in one test.
Vehicle manufacturers will no doubt be quick to head back to the drawing board to work on new safety designs for this test. The IIHS tested luxury and near-luxury vehicles because they tend to have the latest and greatest safety items before more affordable vehicles. Top-selling vehicles, such as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry, will be tested next.