The number of drivers of 0-3-year-old passenger vehicles involved in fatal frontal crashes has fallen 55 percent since 2001. Much of the improved outlook is due to the success of consumer information testing like the New Car Assessment Program begun by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1978 and crashworthiness evaluations the Institute started in 1995. In NHTSA’s frontal test, passenger vehicles crash at 35 mph into a rigid barrier covering the full width of the vehicle. In the Institute’s 40 mph offset frontal test, now called a moderate overlap frontal test, 40 percent of the total width of a vehicle strikes a deformable barrier on the driver side.
In a 2009 Institute study of vehicles with good ratings for frontal crash protection, small overlap crashes accounted for nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants. Another 24 percent of the frontal crashes were moderate overlap crashes, although they likely occurred at much higher speeds than the Institute’s moderate overlap test. An additional 14 percent occurred when passenger vehicles underrode large trucks, SUVs or other high-riding passenger vehicles. The Institute is exploring countermeasures for large truck underride crashes and in other research has found that the problem of crash incompatibility between cars and SUVs is being reduced.
The key to protection in any crash is a strong safety cage that resists deformation to maintain survival space for occupants. Then vehicle restraint systems can do their jobs to cushion and protect people. “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,” Lund explains.