Newest IIHS Test Stymies Automakers

Passenger-side small overlap test revealing new shortcomings.

by on Jun.24, 2016

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety plans to implement a new version of its small overlap test: a passenger-side iteration.

Just as automakers were making progress on the latest crash tests in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s rankings, the organization has developed a new one and automakers look like they’re going to struggle.

The IIHS is mulling the possibility of adding a new front crash test. The new one is similar to one that automakers have already struggled to deal with, the small overlap crash.

The Last Word!

Cars are run into a barrier at 40 miles per hour with all of the impact coming on the driver’s side instead of striking it dead on. The concept is to test a vehicle’s ability to withstand impact with a pole or a tree, instead of a head-on collision with another vehicle or even a wall.

The institute initially began implementing the test on the driver’s side and after faring poorly in the early years of the test – it began in 2012 – automakers have been showing steady improvement overall. However, the test is now beginning to be used on the passenger side and the results are not pretty.

Out of seven SUVs with good ratings on the regular (i.e. driver side) test, only the 2015 Hyundai Tucson passed when it came to the crash on the right side. The rest were rated poor or acceptable. The new test is designed to simulate collisions that occur from oncoming traffic.

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The Hyundai Tucson received a "good" rating from the IIHS for its new passenger-side small overlap test.

“This is an important aspect of occupant protection that needs more attention,” says Becky Mueller, an IIHS senior research engineer and the lead author of the study. “More than 1,600 right-front passengers died in frontal crashes in 2014.”

The results didn’t change much even when the construction appeared to be the same on both sides of the vehicle. The recent passenger-side tests show how big the differences can be. In this group of small SUVs, most didn’t perform as well when they were crashed into a barrier on the right side instead of the left. That was even true of models that appeared symmetrical after removing bumper covers and other external components.

“When structural improvements are visible only on the driver side, there are large differences in performance,” Mueller says. “But the inverse is not true. Some vehicle structures look the same on both sides, but they don’t perform the same. That’s why we can’t rely on visual analysis but need to monitor this issue and possibly begin rating vehicles for passenger-side protection.”

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The 2015 Toyota RAV4 and the 2014 Nissan Rogue were the only vehicles to appear asymmetrical. In the passenger-side test, the RAV4 was the worst performer. If the Institute issued ratings for passenger-side protection, the RAV4 would earn a poor rating. The Rogue would earn a marginal.

“It’s not surprising that automakers would focus their initial effort to improve small overlap protection on the side of the vehicle that we conduct tests on,” said David Zuby, IIHS’ executive vice president and chief research officer.

“In fact, we encouraged them to do that in the short term if it meant they could quickly make driver-side improvements to more vehicles. As time goes by, though, we would hope they ensure similar levels of protection on both sides.”

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IIHS passenger-side small overlap ratings would remedy that situation. The Institute could start such a program next year and make it a requirement for one of its safety awards as early as 2018.

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