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Status Report, Vol. 36, No. 1 | SPECIAL ISSUE: HEAD PROTECTION IN SIDE IMPACTS | January 6, 2001 Subscribe

New crash test barrier is key to improving side impact protection

Federal test barrier (left) and new IIHS test barrier (right)

A lineup of Mercury Grand Marquis sedans, each with major crash damage on the driver side, is one sign of the new side impact research going on at the Institute's Vehicle Research Center.

The Institute has been developing alternative side impact test procedures. This work is intended to lead to a consumer information program to rate vehicles on side impact protection. The effort is similar to the Institute's frontal offset test program, which informs consumers and encourages automakers to improve vehicle designs for frontal crashworthiness. The test program also may form the basis for future changes to side impact requirements under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 214.

New side impact tests are needed in part because neither FMVSS 214 nor the government's consumer test program, the Lateral Impact New Car Assessment Program, addresses occupant head protection. In fact, the side impact dummies, or SIDs, used in these tests don't record head forces.

Plus the barrier used for both test programs is outdated. Mounted on a movable cart, the FMVSS 214 barrier hits the side of another vehicle to simulate an intersection-type crash. But the size of the barrier is based on cars of the late 1970s, which aren't typical of today's fleet with its proliferation of heavy, high-riding sport utility vehicles.

In the government tests, there's no chance that the SIDs in the struck vehicle will be hit by the intruding barrier. "Yet in serious real-world side impacts people's heads often are struck by intruding vehicles," Institute president Brian O'Neill points out. "Head injuries are especially likely when a relatively high vehicle like an SUV hits the side of a car."

Side impacts involving high-riding vehicles striking cars are classic examples of crashes in which side airbags for people's heads can provide effective protection.

"Today's tests should recognize the protection possible with side impact head airbags. This technology wasn't even a concept when FMVSS 214 was under consideration. But now it's in cars, and the extra protection should be reflected in tests to provide consumers with safety information. Testing with a barrier higher than the one used for FMVSS 214 is a necessary first step," O'Neill adds.

The new prototype barrier being used in side impact tests conducted by the Institute is based on the FMVSS 214 barrier, but it stands about 12 inches taller in part because it's raised higher off the ground like SUVs and pickups. It's also contoured to resemble the fronts of late-model SUVs. Like the FMVSS 214 barrier, its face is deformable to represent the crushable front end of a striking vehicle.

So far, the Institute has conducted four tests with the new barrier. Each test simulates an intersection crash in which a striking vehicle moving at 30 mph, represented by the barrier, hits the driver side of a vehicle going 15 mph. Injury measures are recorded on a dummy in the driver seat and another in the left rear seat.

SIDs used in government crash tests aren't very sophisticated dummies. This is why the Institute and others are considering more advanced alternative dummies including EuroSID2 and SID-IIs (see Status Report special issue: side impact, Sept. 28, 1996.

SID-IIs is a small (5th percentile) female, while the others represent 50th percentile males. Shorter women may be more likely to be struck in the head by an intruding vehicle in a side impact, which is one argument for using SID-IIs. However, it's not yet clear which dummy ultimately will be selected for use in the new side impact tests.

Transport Canada is working with the Institute on tests using the new barrier and SID-IIs. The Institute also will share progress reports on this program with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers, and other groups.

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