GREENE COUNTY, Va. – A special report by WSLS-TV, KSAT’s sister station in Roanoke, Virginia, is looking at how efforts in that state are keeping drivers in America safe on the roads.
Researchers in Ruckersville, Virginia, a small, rural community north of Charlottesville, are putting pressure on automakers, leading them to improve the safety features that could save you and your family in a high-speed crash.
WSLS visited the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, where experts showed the TV news crew how they carry out the vehicles’ evaluation, which leads to its highly-respected safety ratings.
At the massive facility, the staff has been conducting independent crash research for more than a half-century, wrecking hundreds of brand-new cars. The IIHS is the only non-governmental group that does crash testing.
The news crew watched last month as a team of experts prepped a 2020 Chevrolet Traverse, draining fuel, installing measuring devices and setting up cameras.
A lot is on the line: A good vs. a poor rating is a 40 to 70% reduction in the chances someone dies in a crash.
The crew got to watch the big moment: the high-speed crash.
The SUV hit a barrier at 40 mph from the front, aligned to the driver’s side.
The dummy’s body lurched forward and debris scattered on the ground. Company leaders from GM looked on as the team began reviewing the results.
“Every single crash test is interesting to me,” said senior research engineer Becky Mueller.
“My initial thoughts are that this vehicle did a pretty good job of protecting people in this small overlap high-speed crash,” she said.
The dummy hit the airbag, and the cabin didn’t collapse on it.
“To the untrained eye, you see a lot of damage but, actually, all this damage is doing a good job of absorbing energy that otherwise would have been absorbed by you, inside,” Mueller said. “We also get information from the dummy’s 40+ sensors that tell us whether he would have injuries to all different regions of the body.”
This test has challenged manufacturers to make airbags more effective over the years.
Some cars don’t fare so well.
In another one of the groups’ six crash tests, the 2018 Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee got poor ratings on the front passenger side, as the cabin closed in and the dummy’s head hit the dashboard.
In contrast, the research team showed an example of a car that gets a great rating on the test.
“The structure has been well-maintained. You could visualize that there’s still space here for you to sit, for your legs,” Mueller said.
They’ve seen improvement in the last three years on this test.
In fact, most cars are passing all these tests now.
“Currently vehicles all get the highest rating of good in our side impact test, but we know people are still being injured and killed in the roadways,” Mueller said.
Because of this, they want to make the tests tougher, using faster speeds and heavier objects to better simulate an SUV or a pickup hitting the side of a vehicle.
They’re seeing some poor performance in recent preliminary tests.
“Mainly that the car wraps around and now the door areas are the problem. They’re intruding into the person’s survival space,” Mueller said.
They’re hoping to roll out the new side impact test officially later this year.
“We’ve had, we think, a huge impact because without the influence of the testing that we do here, automakers have only had to cope with the testing done by the federal government,” chief of research David Zuby said.
Any crash test dummy at the IIHS has had its head slammed into an airbag hundreds of times without breaking.
“This dummy has been very effective over the years at improving vehicle safety,” Mueller said.
But researchers want more detailed information to better show what the specific injuries would be, partly because American waistlines are expanding and fewer people sit upright in cars.
A new dummy, now in a testing phase, has 120+ sensors. It’s shaped differently in some areas to better reflect the average American.
Researchers are studying it right now, crashing some older cars with the new dummy inside in an attempt to see how beneficial it would be.
Years from now, they anticipate putting it in their main tests.
Some reporting has criticized the reliance on this average male dummy, citing the differences in how male and female bodies respond in crashes.
“There are a lot of differences that we’re going to need to study in the future. Gender is just one that we’re looking at, but obesity is a big problem and also the elderly population,” Mueller said.
They can’t use a dummy until it’s available, and the one being tested now took 20 years to develop.
“One device that can represent an average person does a really good job of providing manufacturers with the input they need to give protection to everybody,” Mueller said.
The institute’s leadership says this work has had a major impact on safety in the last 50+ years.
“There have been huge improvements in vehicles’ ability to provide protection to the people inside,” Zuby said. “We will see a lot more testing of the systems that are helping drivers avoid being in crashes.”
Active safety testing manager David Aylor says they show a nearly 80% reduction in crashes.
“It’s hugely important because it has a great benefit in the real world,” he said.
The 10 News crew watched as he demonstrated auto-braking.
“You’ll hear the warning sensors go off. The vehicle is going to automatically apply the brakes.”
These systems have gotten more advanced over the years and can now detect pedestrians. There’s a deadline two years from now for auto-braking to be a standard feature.
“As we promote the technology, as we see the benefit in the real world, manufacturers are equipping more of their vehicles with this technology,” Aylor said.
Other systems have addressed low-speed crashes, and headlight technology aims to constantly adjust between low and high beams and lead you around turns.
Researchers want automakers to make the best technology standard, not optional.
“We know in recent years, pedestrian fatalities have been on the rise, so it’s extremely important that we’re able to prevent these crashes from happening in the first place,” Aylor said.
But these features don’t amount to a self-driving mode right now.
“I think the key takeaway is that they’re not a replacement for a human driver, and it’s important that the driver is always engaged with their hands on the wheel, even with some of these more advanced systems,” Aylor said.
There’s a feature on 18-wheelers that can save lives in the event of a crash with a sedan.
Guards on the rear and sides of semi-trailers can stop a car from going underneath, a situation researchers call “underride.” If the guards aren’t there or aren’t up to par, crashes can be deadly.
Video from IIHS crash tests shows guards that work -- and shows ones that have failed.
Many older rear guards fail these tests, and researchers say that, to some extent, the public has to wait until they get phased out.
Automakers don’t have to include the guards in their standard features, and the companies that buy the tractor-trailers aren’t forced to use them.
The newer, safer guards are more expensive and add more weight -- two of the reasons why many semi-trailers on the roads today don’t have them.
Only a small number of 18-wheelers have side guards, researchers say, adding that they’re often aftermarket products.
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Researchers said if the public continues to show it cares about these features, then car manufacturers feel more pressure to perfect them.
It will take a change in federal regulations or more pressure from the public and groups like the IIHS in order to have better crash avoidance technology and more tractor-trailer guards on the roads, IIHS researchers said.