For decades, IIHS has been a leader in finding out what works and doesn't work to prevent motor vehicle crashes from happening in the first place and to minimize injuries in the crashes that still occur.
IIHS was founded in 1959 by three major insurance associations representing 80 percent of the U.S. auto insurance market. At first, the Institute's purpose was to support highway safety efforts by others. A decade later, IIHS was reinvented as an independent research organization. William Haddon Jr., M.D., who served as the nation's first federal highway safety chief, oversaw this transition after becoming president of IIHS in 1969. By then, he already was leading the transformation of the highway safety field from one focused solely on crash prevention to one using a modern, scientific approach to identify a full range of options for reducing crash losses. In particular:
- Human factors research addresses problems associated with teenage drivers, alcohol-impaired driving, truck driver fatigue and safety belt use, to name a few.
- Vehicle research focuses on both crash avoidance and crashworthiness. Crash tests are central to crashworthiness research, and IIHS testing expanded with the opening of the Vehicle Research Center (VRC).
- Research about the physical environment includes, for example, assessment of roadway designs to reduce run-off-the-road crashes and eliminate roadside hazards.
This scientific approach has been remarkably successful. The number of people killed on roads in the United States, while still far too high, has fallen since 1979, even as the population and the number of miles driven have climbed. Much of this improvement is a result of safer vehicles.
At the same time, IIHS recognizes that vehicle design isn't the whole story and continues to look for ways to improve driver behavior and roadway design. For example, our work has led more states to adopt primary safety belt laws and graduated licensing requirements and has encouraged communities to build roundabouts and use automated enforcement, including red light and speed cameras.
Vehicle Research Center
In 1992, IIHS opened the VRC. Tucked in the foothills of central Virginia, this state-of-the-art facility is where IIHS performs the crash tests that form the basis of its widely consulted vehicle ratings.
VRC tests help consumers make informed decisions. Vehicles are rated for safety based on performance in several tests, and the best performers carry the Top Safety Pick+ or Top Safety Pick designation. More information on these ratings is available here. IIHS tests have encouraged automakers to produce safer vehicles, which is the ultimate goal. Knowing that consumers consult the ratings before buying, manufacturers design cars and trucks with these tests in mind.
When IIHS began its moderate overlap frontal crash tests in 1995, roughly half of the vehicles earned marginal or poor ratings, and more were rated poor than good. Today nearly all vehicles earn good ratings for protection in a moderate overlap frontal crash. Similarly, when side impact tests began in 2003, not many vehicles earned top ratings, while most get good ratings today. Rear and rollover ratings have improved, too.
To help drive further improvements in crash protection, IIHS in 2012 introduced the small overlap front test. It is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole. Already, manufacturers are working to meet this new challenge and improve protection for these types of crashes.
IIHS took its testing in a new direction in 2013, when it began rating vehicles for front crash prevention. Technology that can warn of an impending frontal collision or initiate autonomous braking is part of a growing category of crash avoidance features that have the potential to take vehicle safety to new levels.