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Should U.S. toughen protections against side-impact collisions?: Yes

More than 10,000 Americans die every year in side-impact crashes. More will die every year in the future because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made a fatal calculation in 1988.

Now the auto companies want to seize on that fatal mistake and harmonize the NHTSA standard with an equally inadequate European standard. Both the U.S. and European standards ignore the growing threat of light trucks, particularly sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which would better be named urban assault vehicles for their lethal impact.Hit by an SUV, a compact car occupant is 27 times more likely to be killed than the SUV occupant.

When NHTSA set the side-impact standard in 1988, it assumed the average vehicle in the 1990s would weigh only 3,000 pounds and used a 3,015-pound moving barrier with an impact point height of 13 inches off the ground to represent the striking vehicle in its standard.

By 1993, instead of getting smaller the average vehicle got larger, with an average weight of 3,700 pounds. Light trucks soared to more than half the new vehicle fleet, with the average light truck now weighing 1,000 pounds more than the average car. And their bumpers are 9 to 12 inches higher than those on cars. In a side-impact, they come in over the top of the strongest point of a car's side - its door sill.

And the biggest vehicles keep getting bigger. The 1998 Toyota Land Cruiser and its Lexus twin have just been redesigned with 4.7 liter V-8 engines, supplanting the former 6-cylinder engine, and now each has a curb weight of 6,470 pounds. Similarly, the current Chevrolet Suburban now weighs up to 6,700 pounds without occupants or cargo, and has gained 1,000 pounds since 1985.

Fearful of losing the size race to the Lincoln Navigator, GM plans to make the Suburban up to 3 feet longer and more than 7,000 pounds.

In 1988, the Center for Auto Safety recommended NHTSA use a 4,000-pound moving barrier to represent the crunching encounters passenger cars would have in the real world. Just as it had done in the 1970s when the center called for air bags to be tested with small woman and children instead of an average male, NHTSA caved into the pressure of the auto industry, which demanded and got a weaker standard that resulted in needless deaths in crashes.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Europeans set a side-impact standard using a moving barrier of only 2,000 pounds, which is 2 inches lower than the NHTSA barrier. The European standard comes up to the equivalent low protection level of the U.S. standard by having a more accurate test dummy and a narrower face on its barrier, which concentrates the crash forces.

Neither the U.S. nor the European standard is up to the job of testing for the real threat on the roads, the growing number of larger and heavier SUVs and light trucks. The domestic and foreign automakers have petitioned NHTSA to harmonize its standard with the European standard and phase in the hybrid standard.

What we will have at the end of that process, some 10 years down the road, is an inadequate standard and more side-impact deaths as SUVs plow through passenger cars. What the U.S. government needs to do is admit that neither the U.S. nor European side-impact standards protect consumers and get to work on an upgraded side-impact standard that uses a 4,500 pound moving barrier 22 inches off the ground. That represents what all too many passenger-car occupants see coming at them.