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Car Safety Group Is Making a Big Impact

Times Staff Writer

As Volkswagen prepared to launch its redesigned 2005 Jetta sedan, the automaker asked the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to run two of the cars through some tough crash tests.

To get the tests early, Volkswagen footed the bill -- about $60,000, including the two cars sacrificed at the institute’s test center here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. VW wanted to include the crash tests in new ads it is launching this month.

The Jetta got top marks, as VW officials knew it would. Indeed, the sedan was engineered with the institute’s front- and side-impact crash tests in mind.

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“Nobody wants to see their car do poorly” in an institute test, said VW spokesman Tony Fouladpour.

The institute is determined, many auto executives say, to embarrass the industry into improving the safety of its cars and trucks. The chief weapons of the institute, a nonprofit organization funded by insurers, are its reputation for solid scientific research and its graphic crash tests.

The tests have been a staple on “Dateline NBC” Sunday night broadcasts since 1996, and the videotapes have given millions of Americans a good idea of what can happen when a poorly designed vehicle is hit, or crashes, at even moderate speeds. Other media outlets also regularly publicize the institute’s research findings, test results and recommendations.

“We have to pay attention to their tests, because consumers do,” said Rich Gilligan, president of Mitsubishi Motors North America.

The man behind the wheel at the institute is Brian O'Neill, a blunt, British-born mathematician who has been its president since 1985. Federal rule-making is “a miserably slow process in promoting safety advances,” said O'Neill, who revels in the institute’s ability to force change on an often reluctant auto industry.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, is the official government rule maker. Auto companies must follow the federal agency’s orders, but it can take years for the politically sensitive agency to turn a proposal into a legal requirement. Other safety advocates -- such as Consumer Reports magazine and Public Citizen and Center for Auto Safety, lobbying groups founded by safety crusader Ralph Nader -- also have a significant voice in the nation’s automotive safety agenda.

But many believe the institute has trumped them all with its carefully crafted publicity campaigns.

This year the institute has a $13-million budget funded by auto insurance companies. When automakers request special tests, as VW did with the Jetta, the institute requires them to pay the costs. Otherwise, the institute buys the cars it crashes.

O'Neill has budgeted almost $2 million for 70 cars and trucks for crash tests this year in the institute’s ongoing campaign to praise automakers that improve their vehicles and shame those that don’t.

The test results have influenced many design changes.

For instance, the Mitsubishi Galant sedan failed the institute’s frontal crash test in 1995 when the passenger compartment collapsed. The test dummy’s head and left shoulder hit the window frame, and the dummy’s left foot and lower leg became twisted and deformed.

A chastened Mitsubishi engineering staff went back to the drawing board and the new Galant, which debuted in 2004, passed the next institute test with flying colors.

“Those are the stories we like to be able to tell,” O'Neill said.

But Mitsubishi’s small SUV, the Outlander, failed the institute’s tough side-impact crash test last year. Mitsubishi’s Gilligan said the company was working to ensure that the next model would pass when it hit the market in a few years.

Although the institute had been doing crash tests for years, its influence rose after O'Neill struck the deal that gave “Dateline NBC” first broadcast rights for the tests.

Scenes of buckling sheet metal, flying glass and crumpled test dummies, limbs bent at grotesque angles and heads dented from impact with window frames and side pillars, “never fails to get a gasp from an audience,” O'Neill said.

“When IIHS tests end up on ‘Dateline,’ it adds a dimension [of pressure] we don’t have with NHTSA,” said Chris Tinto, Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety representative in Washington. The institute’s tactics “drive change faster than might otherwise happen,” General Motors Corp. vehicle safety director Bob Lange acknowledged.

The institute is credited with a leadership role in campaigns for mandatory air bags, seat belt laws, graduated driver’s licenses for teens, the use of daytime headlights in passenger vehicles, and rollover prevention standards being considered by the highway safety agency. The institute’s frontal crash tests also helped lead to the development of better-built automotive passenger compartments.

And the institute’s new side-impact test -- the first to examine the risk of head injuries when a car is struck from the side by an SUV -- is applying pressure on automakers to add side-curtain air bags to improve their test scores.

A new batch of institute tests has focused on head and neck injuries from rear-end crashes. Last year, an institute test found that eight of 73 seat and head-restraint packages earned a “good” rating against whiplash-type injuries.

The highway safety agency doesn’t have a comparable whiplash test. Still, many automakers are scrambling to build better head restraints.

Safety isn’t the institute’s only concern. It serves insurers, so it seeks ways to reduce payouts for repairs as well as for accident-related injuries and death benefits.

That’s why spare tires mounted on the rear doors of SUVs have all but disappeared. Institute tests showed that the external spares caused repair bills to soar by crushing into sheet metal and rear-window glass, even in low-speed crashes such as backing into a pole in a parking lot.

Carmakers know that the tests can influence perceptions of a brand’s overall safety. The publicity “does drive some of our design behavior,” said GM safety director Lange.

Televising its crash tests is so important to the institute that it installed a world-class lighting system when it built its $8.5-million vehicle research center in 1995. The sprawling facility sits on 135 wooded acres in a crazy quilt of aging dairy farms and sparkling new office parks 100 miles southeast of the institute’s headquarters. Racks of overhead lamps bathe the cavernous, 21,000-square-foot crash test hall.

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O'Neill’s role as an influential safety advocate had an unlikely beginning.

He emigrated to the U.S. in 1966 and worked as a defense and space program analyst for several years before stumbling into the auto safety arena in 1969 by answering a help wanted ad for a statistician. He didn’t know who was doing the hiring until he was called for an interview. It turned out to be the insurance institute, a new organization being put together by William J. Haddon Jr., a noted accident safety researcher.

Haddon, who had been the first director of the federal safety bureau that later became NHTSA, was asked by the institute’s board in 1969 to transform a sleepy data collection service for insurance adjusters. He hired O'Neill, who became president after Haddon’s death. O'Neill has carried on his predecessor’s agenda, including building the research center.

The institute may be powerful, but it isn’t universally applauded.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, complains that O'Neill can be too accommodating to automakers.

When the institute designed its side-impact test three years ago, it chose a slower crash speed than is used by the highway safety agency -- 31 miles an hour instead of 38.5 mph. The lower speed saved money on crash-test dummy repair, and made it a bit easier for automakers to devise safety improvements to better their vehicles’ scores, the institute said.

To Claybrook, that’s tantamount to sleeping with the enemy.

“They have been careful to develop relationships with the automakers,” she said. A former federal safety agency administrator, Claybrook believes government regulation is the only sure way to improve auto safety.

But O'Neill counters that a cooperative relationship gets more accomplished.

Despite the differences in their approaches, Claybrook said she admired O'Neill and believed the institute had “made significant contributions to highway safety.”

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The institute’s crash tests remain its most visible work, and they tend to be difficult for any but the best-built cars.

In the institute’s side-impact test, for instance, a block of honey-combed aluminum launched by a hydraulic motor slams into a stationary car to simulate a collision with an SUV or large pickup. Only two of 14 current model compact cars in March passed the test and both -- the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cobalt -- were equipped with optional side-curtain air bags. Without the optional bags, which drop down from above the side windows to protect the head, the cars failed.

For its part, the federal agency has proposed adding head injury measurements to its side-impact test, but it will be a year or more before the agency implements them. So while the safety agency goes through its rule-making process, a number of new cars with side curtain air bags -- including the 2006 Honda Civic -- already will be in the market as manufacturers scurry to get top marks in the insurance institute’s test.

“We just can’t do what IIHS does” when it comes to speed, admits Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator of the safety agency. “We can’t all of a sudden declare that tomorrow we are going to start a new test.”

But Consumer Reports magazine and the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, favor institute tests over the federal agency’s. The GAO recently said the agency needed to update its crash test standards and held up the institute’s side-impact test as an example of a better way to do it.

In May, Consumer Reports revised its safety criteria so that only vehicles that receive the institute’s highest rating of “good” on both front- and side-impact tests can receive the magazine’s top recommendation.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the institute’s influence than the scramble by automakers after it announced plans to mimic crashes with SUVs in its side-impact test.

When the institute’s staff went to buy the necessary crash test equipment, “We had to wait because the demand from the [auto] industry was so great they’d sold out,” O'Neill recalled.

Toyota and Honda bought up the entire available supply of the $1,400 aluminum test devices -- 100 units each -- so they could use them in their own testing centers before sending out new cars that would be tested by the institute.


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