RUCKERSVILLE, Va.—The wrecked remains of a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air provide a stark illustration of just how far we’ve come with regard to automotive safety. The copper-colored scrap greets you in the reception area of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center, an automotive safety testing facility nestled between farms in the bucolic Virginia countryside a couple of hours from Washington, DC.
The mangled remains of the Bel Air aren’t pretty. A wheel and tire mostly occupy the space that should be the driver’s footwell. The metal dashboard to the left of the steering wheel is covered in pink and blue greasepaint from where the dummy’s head made contact. The 2009 Malibu, while also a wreck, left its dummy in much better shape, thanks to seatbelts, airbags, and energy-absorbing crash structures. And yet, it too is eclipsed in the safety stakes by almost every vehicle on sale in 2019, in no small part thanks to the work conducted at the institute.
IIHS opened the Vehicle Research Center in 1992, and since then it has been smashing cars into things (and things into cars) in the name of improved safety. The institute is constantly studying real-world crash data and designing new crash tests as a result, and its tests make automakers sit up and pay attention. That’s because safety sells in 2019, and the OEMs know they have to ace IIHS’ tests if they want to earn its coveted “Top Safety Pick” or the even-tougher “Top Safety Pick+” badge of honor.
You might be wondering why IIHS even needs to crash-test cars in the first place; after all, isn’t that the government’s job? The program came about in 1995 after researchers noticed that most frontal collisions were offset—unlike the National Highway Safety Administration’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) 35mph (56km/h) frontal impact test. NCAP’s test was (and is) an effective measure of how a car’s airbags and seatbelts protect the front-seat occupants. But because the force is equally distributed across the width of the vehicle, it is a less demanding test of how well a car’s structure absorbs or redirects energy away from the humans inside.
So IIHS decided to start testing vehicles by crashing them (into a deformable aluminum honeycomb structure) at 40mph (65km/h) with a 40% frontal offset. The institute found something rather shocking—vehicles that scored well in NCAP did not necessarily ace the IIHS test. In fact, more than half of the cars it tested in this moderate overlap test got a marginal or poor result. (IIHS rates each test result as good/acceptable/marginal/poor, and it says that a driver in “a vehicle rated good in the moderate overlap test is 46 percent less likely to die in a frontal crash, compared with a driver of a vehicle rated poor.”)