ARLINGTON, Virginia — The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has begun subjecting a number of vehicles to its small-overlap crash test to determine how well passengers — and not just drivers — are being protected in crashes.
The IIHS small-overlap test, instituted in 2012, is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or object at 40 mph.
In order to qualify for an IIHS Top Safety Pick rating in 2015, a vehicle must earn a "good" or "acceptable" rating on this stringent test, as well as a "good" rating on four other types of crash tests. In the latest round of small-overlap testing, of 126 models evaluated, 57 were rated "good" and 28 "acceptable."
But since the small-overlap test is conducted on the front-left corner of the vehicle, it primarily determines how well a dummy in the driver's seat fares in the crash.
IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told Edmunds that his organization began the passenger-side investigation "after we saw that some vehicles have additional structures built into their front ends for crash protection, but only on the left side."
He added: "The goal of the research tests is to assess whether we should change the small-overlap test procedure to mimic how our roof strength test is conducted — where we randomly test vehicles on the passenger side to ensure the automakers are strengthening both sides."
It may sound like something ominous is going on, but Rader noted: "It's not necessarily a telltale sign of a problem because protecting a driver is different than protecting a passenger. The passenger gets a bigger airbag, for example, and there is no steering wheel or pedals on the floor that complicate passenger protection."
Still, the IIHS saw beefed-up left-side structures "frequently enough that we decided to do some crash tests on vehicles that performed well in the driver-side small-overlap test, and see what would happen if we moved the barrier to the passenger side."
Rader would not name the models being tested, but he said IIHS engineers have conducted four small-overlap tests — as well as two moderate-overlap tests and six passenger-side crash tests — to learn more about how well automakers are designing vehicles to protect passengers.
He also said the IIHS has not yet determined how many more vehicles will need to be tested before they're prepared to draw any conclusions.
Founded in 1959, the IIHS is an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization funded by auto insurers and insurance associations. Its rigorous testing procedures go beyond the 5-Star Safety Ratings issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by looking at such factors as crash avoidance and mitigation, as well as crash protection.
Some critics charge that the NHTSA ratings are outdated, and as previously reported by Edmunds, legislation has recently been introduced to move the 5-Star Safety Ratings beyond just crash and rollover tests and begin incorporating a broader range of factors into its assessments.
In the meantime, the IIHS is continuing its investigation into how manufacturers are addressing passenger safety in their vehicles.
"We know that some automakers have needed to a take a short-term Band-Aid approach to upgrade for small-overlap protection," said Rader. "If an existing vehicle was designed before the small-overlap test was implemented, and a full redesign is a ways off, the automaker may find it easier and faster to address the issue on the driver side first.
"We don't want to discourage this kind of fix, because there is always a driver in a crash; there isn't always someone in the passenger seat. However, we do want the automakers to know that we expect both the driver and passenger side to offer the same level of crash protection with clean-sheet redesigns."
Edmunds says: It will be interesting to see what the IIHS investigation turns up, as well as how automakers respond.