Test performance predicts outcomes in real-world crashes

February 7, 2004

If your car earns a good rating in a controlled crash test, like the car on the left, it means that if you get in a serious frontal crash out on the highway you'll get much better protection than you would in a similar car that's rated poor (right). A new Institute study confirms the value of crash test ratings of vehicles for consumer information.

"Drivers of vehicles rated poor based on performance in our frontal offset crash tests are at significantly greater risk of dying in real-world frontal crashes, compared with drivers of vehicles with better crash test ratings," Institute chief operating officer Adrian Lund points out.

Since 1995, the Institute has been evaluating passenger vehicle crashworthiness in frontal tests. The ratings of good, acceptable, marginal, or poor are based on 40 mph offset tests in which the driver side of each vehicle strikes a deformable barrier. For the new study relating test ratings to fatality risk in real-world crashes, researchers examined 12 years of records from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a federal database of all fatal crashes on U.S. roads, and identified vehicles that had been rated in the Institute's offset test.

Frontal offset crash test performance

Good: 2002 Toyota Camry

98 Sienna
Good: 1998 Toyota Sienna
Poor: 1998 Hyundai Sonata

97 trans
Poor: 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport

In most groups of similar vehicles the Institute has evaluated in 40 mph frontal offset crash tests, the ratings vary from good to poor. For example, among midsize inexpensive cars the 2002 Toyota Camry is a good performer while the 1996 Hyundai Sonata is rated poor. Among minivans, the 1998 Toyota Sienna is good. In contrast, the 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport is rated poor. Drivers of vehicles rated poor based on performance in these crash tests are at significantly greater risk of dying if they get into frontal crashes out on the road, compared with drivers of vehicles with good ratings.

In the most relevant comparison, the researchers compared fatality risks in crashes in which two vehicles similar in type hit head on (car to car, pickup to pickup, etc.). After controlling for differences in vehicle weight, driver age and gender, and other factors, the researchers found that drivers of vehicles with good ratings were about 74 percent less likely to die than drivers of vehicles rated poor. The drivers of vehicles rated acceptable or marginal were about 45 percent less likely to die than drivers of the poor-rated vehicles they crashed into.

"Consumers who factor crash test ratings into their purchasing decisions can get more crashworthy vehicles that will do a better job of protecting them if they get in a frontal crash," Lund says.

Results of the new study are consistent with previous research correlating crash test performance and real-world injury and survival rates. A study of cars rated by the European New Car Assessment Program, which uses a frontal offset crash test similar to the Institute's, found that drivers of cars with four-star ratings were about 30 percent less likely to be severely injured in real crashes than drivers of cars with only one star.

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