Airbags and safety belts vastly improve occupant protection, yet thousands of people die in frontal crashes each year. A federal study of the factors behind these deaths suggests the need for improved vehicle designs and advanced restraints to better protect people in corner and oblique crashes, impacts with narrow objects like poles, and underrides with large trucks and trailers. The findings are in line with Institute research.
Last year the Institute combed federal crash data to explore why crash deaths and serious injuries happen in vehicles that earn good ratings based on frontal tests and suggested crash types for further analysis (see "Crash data of good-rated vehicles could be used to develop new tests," March 7, 2009). Similarly, a research team from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reviewed every crash in which a belted driver or right front-seat passenger died in a model year 2000 or newer vehicle to obtain a sample of 121 crashes to study. Data are from the Crashworthiness Data System of the National Automotive Sampling System.
While the Institute looked at deaths and serious injuries, limiting cases to vehicles with good crash test ratings, the federal researchers focused on fatalities and didn't put any conditions on test performance. The agency's results skew toward 2000-03 models, and the Institute's work focuses on 2004-06 models with more crashworthy designs.
Just over half of the people who died were in exceedingly severe crashes or had physical conditions that may have raised their injury risk. Being elderly or obese were common factors.
The next most common factor involved vehicle structures that didn't line up well enough to absorb crash energy, resulting in lots of occupant compartment intrusion. This was the case in corner crashes, impacts with poles and trees, underrides, and crashes with an oblique impact direction.