Here's how automakers and a nonprofit are making cars safer together

February 2, 2017

It's true that every new car sold today is safe. But it's just as true that some are safer than others, and that's largely due to the symbiotic relationship between car manufacturers and the independent agency that smacks new vehicles into a wall in the interest of saving lives.

That disparity is just what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is relentlessly trying to address with its increasingly demanding New Car Assessment Program. This insurance industry-funded nonprofit took the federal government's new car crash tests and dramatically reworked them. Over the last decade, the IIHS has implemented far more rigorous and comprehensive testing than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It's all self-serving: insurers see their costs go down dramatically as cars become safer. To put it bluntly: it is cheaper to fix or total out a mangled car than it is to do the same with its occupants. 

Here's where automakers fit in

Even though automakers eagerly tout (or brush under the rug) their vehicles' strong performances, the association between the IIHS and automakers is hardly adversarial.

"Our relationship with the automakers is cooperative," IIHS spokesperson Russ Rader said. "They sometimes balk at the tests we implement, but they recognize that the evaluations are based on solid research into what injures and kills people in crashes." 

Recently, the IIHS began testing new car headlights for their effectiveness. As they're modular components that simply fit into sockets, headlights are relatively easier for automakers to update than a safety structure that doesn't hold up well in a wreck. For 2017, the IIHS now factors headlight performance into its Top Safety Pick+ award, the highest honor it bestows on a vehicle. Last year, it tested lights but did not use their scores for TSP+. 

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Rader told The Car Connection that the IIHS "kept the automakers apprised of our research on headlights and the development of our headlight test before we launched it." 

For instance, the automaker worked directly with BMW to help the German automaker improve the headlights on its 2-Series and 3-Series models. Last year, the best performance the IIHS saw from either the 2-Series or the 3-Series was a "Marginal" for their lights. For the 2017 model year, both models feature updated units that don't look much different from the outside but boast vastly improved light patterns at night, something the IIHS took note of.

"IIHS has challenged BMW to make changes to our vehicles in order to meet the more stringent assessment requirements of the Top Safety Pick+ award," BMW spokesperson Rebecca Kiehne said. "The improvements to headlight aim were discussed with IIHS and their input was valuable." 

The group goes so far as allowing automakers access to their testing facility to develop new lights and it says that some manufacturers will even take home vehicles for engineers to study after testing is complete. 

It's an increasingly symbiotic relationship, but both sides agree that the eventual goal of reducing injuries and fatalities is worthwhile. 

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