Many cars listed as “Top Safety Picks” may not protect you as well as once thought.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released its findings Tuesday from a new crash test and found that only three of 11 midsize luxury and near-luxury cars earned good or acceptable ratings in the new overlap frontal crash test.
While most modern cars offer good protection in head-on collisions, safety experts say small overlap crashes are a different story. Those crashes primarily affect a car’s outer edges, which aren’t well protected, according to the IIHS.
Overlap crashes are responsible for a quarter of all fatal front-end collisions, and as the new crash test found, most cars – domestic and foreign – are unprepared to keep drivers safe in one of these crashes.
“Vehicles are as safe as they’ve ever been. They do well in our current moderate overlap crash test and also the government’s crash test but we still see a lot of people dying in frontal crashes, 10,000 a year,” Institute president Adrian Lund said. “When we look at why they are dying, it turns out small overlap crashes are a big part of that problem.”
The key to protection in any crash is a strong safety cage that resists deformation to maintain survival space for occupants.
Lund said that in a small overlap crash, which involves just 25 percent of the front of the vehicle, the strong energy absorbing structure that’s in the middle is bypassed causing wheels, windshield pillars, dash and door structures to be pushed into the occupant compartment.
“It’s packaging 101. If you ship a fragile item in a strong box, it’s more likely to arrive at its destination without breaking. In crashes, people are less vulnerable to injury if the occupant compartment remains intact,” said Lund.
The IIHS released a video with side-by-side comparisons of the dangers and damage between head-on and overlap collisions. In head-on crashes, the force is spread across the entire front-end safety cage of the vehicle. Cars are designed today to absorb impact in the center of the vehicle, not the corners.
“This is something that can be fixed,” Lund said. “We have two vehicles in this first test group that get a good rating [and] what we are looking for is for the other automakers to take a look at the designs that can protect in this kind of crash and to create their own vehicles that can protect their occupants.”
According to IIHS, the Volvo S60 was structurally the “best.”
Volvo accomplished the structural soundness “by strengthening the safety cage to make it more resistant to intrusion, adding a stiff member on the outer edge of the vehicle to begin to absorb the crash energy early in the contact, and they put a cross member across the occupant compartment to further strengthen and resist intrusion,” Lund said.
The Volvo S60 was one of only three of the 11 midsize 2012 luxury car models, many of which are “Top Safety Picks,” put through the new test passed with good or acceptable ratings.
- Acura TL
- Volvo S60
- Infiniti G
- Acura TSX
- BMW 3 series
- Lincoln MKZ
- Volkswagen CC
- The Mercedes-Benz C-Class
- Lexus IS 250/350
- Audi A4
- Lexus ES 350
See the full rating list and evaluations.
In a statement to ABC News, Mercedes said company officials “don’t agree” with the IIHS rankings and think they are not a good representation of overall protection.
“We believe that the IIHS ‘small overlap frontal crash test’ replicates an unusually severe and correspondingly uncommon accident scenario, and that there are parts of the testing protocol which may have put the C-Class wrongfully at a disadvantage,” the statement read. “We think this is because actual deformation characteristics and real-world kinematics of vehicles involved in this type of crash are very different from the construct of the IIHS test.”
Toyota – the parent company of Lexus, on the other hand said the IIHS has “raised the bar again” for safety standards and the company “will respond to this challenge as we design new vehicles.”
“What we’re seeing is the Insurance Institute is going to push the industry into further improving the crash protection in cars for the future,” said Consumer Reports Deputy Automotive Editor Jeff Bartlett. “The good news is that, in years to come, manufacturers will be looking very closely at this and making changes that will further improve their crash worthiness.”