IIHS raises Top Safety Pick bar with tougher side crash test

October 26, 2021

The last time the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety updated its side impact crash test GM just rolled out the gas-guzzling Hummer H2 and Lincoln ended production of the Blackwood pickup truck after one ignominious year. 

A lot has changed when it comes to safety since 2003, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Americans’ predilection for large vehicles. That’s why the insurance-industry funded IIHS announced on Wednesday updates to its side-impact crash test. The tougher criteria will affect how automakers’ vehicles qualify for a coveted Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ award.

“Nearly all new cars score a “Good” rating in the original side crash test, yet people are still dying in side crashes,” Joe Young, IIHS director of public relations, said in an interview. 

A decade ago, the IIHS found that people in a vehicle with a “Good” side rating were 70% less likely to die in a driver’s side crash than in a vehicle with a “Poor” rating. Young estimated that 93% of vehicles tested in 2021 earned a top “Good” rating in the side impact test, which is one of six crash tests conducted by the IIHS. Yet, of the more than 36,000 traffic fatalities that occurred in 2019, the last complete year for data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, nearly 8,300 people (23%) died from side impact crashes. 

“The real-world data don’t suggest there’s a single fix that can improve side protection,” Young explained. “It’s going to take a stronger structure but also better airbag coverage in some cases.”

What is clear over the past two decades is that vehicles have gotten larger and heavier, and they’re traveling at higher speeds, on average. 

The new test, meant to simulate a T-bone crash such as when a car turns left at a light and gets struck by another car traveling perpendicular through the intersection, addresses these changes. 

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

2021 Mazda CX-5 in IIHS side-crash test

“The average weight of SUVs on the road has increased about 1,000 lb over the last 20 years to about 4,600 lb,” Young said. “The new barrier weighs 4,180 lb, which is about in line with the average weight of a mid-size SUV.”

The original test launched in 2003 had a 3,300-lb barrier striking the test car side at 31 mph. The new test uses the heavier barrier and a strike speed of 37 mph. The IIHS also reshaped the barrier strike surface for a lower point to reflect that SUVs have lower car-like hoods. The barrier hits the B-pillar that separates the front and rear seats externally, and the dummies used in both of those seats are modeled after the proportions of a small woman or 12-year-old passenger. The driver side is used instead of the passenger side because there will always be a driver. 

Even though automakers knew the changes were coming, according to Young, the initial test population of small crossover SUVs did not perform well. Of the 20 vehicles subjected to the new testing, only the 2021 Mazda CX-5 earned a “Good” rating. Nine vehicles earned “Acceptable” ratings, ranging from the Toyota RAV4 to the Volvo XC40. The rest didn’t fare so well, with the Honda HR-V and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross earning “Poor” ratings. 

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

2021 Honda HR-V in IIHS side-impact crash test

“We developed this new test because we suspected there was room for more progress, and these results confirm that,” IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement. “The good rating for the CX-5 shows that robust protection in a more severe side crash is achievable.”

It’s common for automakers to take time in responding to tougher safety criteria. When the original test rolled out, only 1 in 5 models earned a “Good” rating, according to the IIHS. The initial results focused on head protection, and now the IIHS is assessing the effects on chest and pelvic areas as well.

The IIHS continually updates safety criteria based on crash-test data and automaker responsiveness. The last significant change instituted for 2020 was that vehicles had to have standard headlights that rated at least “Acceptable” to earn a Top Safety Pick award. Automakers responded to the criteria, sometimes swapping out headlights in the middle of a production run to earn what many consider to be the most rigorous safety award in the industry. For 2021, 76 models earned a TSP+ award, and 50 earned a TSP, bringing the total number of award winners to 120. Last year, there were 64 total award winners. 

The new test won’t replace the old test until 2023, so TSP ratings won’t be affected until then. For now, the IIHS will show results from both sets of tests to both inform consumers and nudge automakers.

While more robust structures and more airbags might increase the cost that could ultimately be borne by the consumer, price considerations are not under the purview of the IIHS.

“We’re not putting a price tag on a life saved,” Young said. “We’re trying to save lives and prevent injuries.”


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