June 18, 2003

7 of 12 small SUVs receive ‘poor’ side impact crash test rating

Arlington, Virginia – For the first time, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released side impact crash test results. The side impact test represents what happens when a passenger vehicle is struck in the side by a pickup truck or SUV at about 50 km/h.

The best performers among 12 small SUVs tested (2003 models) were the Subaru Forester and the Ford Escape with optional side airbags. In contrast, 7 other small SUVs earned the lowest rating of poor – the Escape without optional side airbags, Toyota RAV4, Suzuki Grand Vitara/Vitara/Chevrolet Tracker, Land Rover Freelander, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn VUE, and Honda Element. The Jeep Wrangler and Honda CR-V were rated marginal, and the Hyundai Santa Fe acceptable.

The Subaru Forester is the only one of the 12 small SUVs to earn a good rating in not only the side impact crashworthiness evaluation but also the Institute’s frontal offset crash test.

“Our side impact crash test is severe,” says Institute president Brian O’Neill. “Given the designs of today’s vehicles, it’s unlikely that people in real-world crashes as severe as this test would emerge uninjured. But with good side impact protection, people should be able to survive crashes of this severity without serious injuries.”

The configuration of the Institute’s side impact test is a 50 km/h (31 mph) perpendicular impact into the driver side of a passenger vehicle. The moving deformable barrier that strikes the test vehicle weighs 3,300 pounds and has a front end shaped to simulate the typical front end of a pickup or SUV. In each side-struck vehicle are two instrumented dummies, one in the driver seat and one in the rear seat behind the driver. These dummies are the size of a short (5th percentile) female or a 12-year-old child.

“This is the first U.S. consumer information test program to use a dummy that represents small females,” O’Neill pointed out.

O’Neill added that he expects this new crashworthiness evaluation program to influence consumers’ car-buying choices. “This is what happened with our frontal crash test results, and now we expect consumers will use the new test results to help them choose vehicles with good occupant protection in both front and side impacts.”

Because consumers pay attention to the Institute’s crash test results, automakers are expected to upgrade their vehicles’ side impact protection, just as they’ve upgraded the protection their vehicles offer in frontal crashes.

In crashes with another passenger vehicle, 51 percent of driver deaths in recent model cars during 2000-01 occurred in side impacts, up from 31 percent in 1980-81. During the same time, the proportion of deaths in frontal impacts declined from 61 percent to 43 percent.

These changes are attributable to two effects, said O’Neill. There have been significant improvements in frontal crash protection – standard airbags, improved structural designs, and higher belt use rates, for example. At the same time, growing sales of SUVs and pickups have exacerbated height mismatches among passenger vehicles, thereby increasing the risks to occupants of many vehicles struck in the side. Seventy-one percent of the driver deaths in cars struck on the driver side by other passenger vehicles during 1980-81 occurred when the other vehicle was a car. Twenty-nine percent occurred when the striking vehicle was a pickup or SUV. By 2000-01 these percentages had almost reversed – 57 percent of the driver deaths in cars struck on the driver side by another passenger vehicle involved striking SUVs or pickups, while 43 percent involved striking cars.

“The risks to people in a side-struck vehicle greatly increase if the striking vehicle rides higher off the ground than the struck vehicle. Thus, the risks are much higher when an SUV strikes the side of a car than when the striking vehicle is another car,” O’Neill explains.

Almost 10,000 passenger vehicle occupants die each year in side impacts, and head injuries are a leading cause. Side airbags designed specifically to protect the head can reduce such deaths and the even more numerous nonfatal head injuries that occur in side impacts.

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