Video: Side-impact crashes

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Dateline NBC
updated 10/3/2004 9:28:43 PM ET 2004-10-04T01:28:43

Side impact collisions are among the deadliest out there. There often isn't enough car between you and what's hitting you to keep you safe. 

Brian O'Neill: “The risk of dying or being seriously injured, if you're struck in the side right where you're

sitting is much higher than the typical frontal crash.”

But there are ways to improve the odds, such as better designs and cutting-edge side curtain air bags with head protection.

The government puts all vehicles through a side impact crash test but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety decided to up the ante. Funded by insurance companies which want to encourage the design of safer cars and also drop insurance costs, the Institute has created a very tough, but realistic test.

Instead of using a barrier representing a passenger car like the government does, the Institute uses a much heavier, taller barrier that simulates an SUV. Brian O'Neill heads the Institute.

O'Neill: “We know that's the worst case scenario because of the height of those vehicles the risk for the occupants struck in the side by them are greater.”

And instead of using a dummy representing a large man, like the government does, the institute places a dummy the size of a small female or teenager in the driver's seat and also behind. As a result, instead of hitting the dummy in the pelvis area, the 31 mile-an-hour barrier comes inright at the dummy's head.

So far in this testing those blows to the head have indicated many potential deaths. This is a very tough test to pass. All the mid-sized cars in this round of testing have side air bags.

First up the 2004 Jaguar X-Type. It cost nearly $35,000, so it's considered a luxury midsize car.If this Jag's driver were a real person, she might have died.

O'Neill: “A person in a crash like this is going to sustain multiple rib fractures and internal organ injuries. But the head is protected. That's small comfort if you are dying from torso injuries… We rate the Jaguar X-Type as marginal.”

The only rating lower is a poor.  

The $39,000 2004 Saab 9-5 is the highest priced car in this group. Does paying more mean more protection? 

O'Neill: “We have a combination torso and head air bag, and that did a reasonably good job of protecting the driver. The rear passenger had no head protection and in fact struck the window frame.”

But the dummy showed a low risk of being injured. The Saab gets the Institute's second highest rating, acceptable.

Then comes the $37,000 2005 Mercedes C-240:

O'neill: “The arm rests and other features in side of the door, they actually get driven in to the occupant.”

Even with the possibility of broken ribs a driver would likely survive the crash. The C-class also gets an acceptable.

What about the 2005 $28,000 Volvo S-40?

O'Neil: “Rib injuries or even internal injuries.”

But the dummy is well protected from head injuries by the air bags The S-40 gets a rating of acceptable.

The $33,000 Lexus ES-330 does better.

O'Neill: “It did reasonably well. We got some moderately high forces on the dummy's torso in the front seat.”

But not so high that the Lexus can't receive the Institute's best rating, good.

The $33,000 Acura TL is newly redesigned for the 2004 model year. The Acura TL also gets a good.

The 2005 Mitsubishi Galant is the least expensive car in this group, at $20,000. O'Neill says here is the real proof side airbags with head protection make a huge difference. Last year you could only get air bags in the most expensive Galant. The Institute tested the standard model without them.

In last year's test the driver dummy recorded a likely skull fracture, a potential death. Despite the fact that O'Neill was impressed with the structure of the car he gave the 2004 Galant the worst possible rating, a poor...

O'Neill: “It was obvious to us that the addition of some head protection in this vehicle would make all the difference.”

And what a difference a year makes. Now, Mitsubishi makesside impact air bags standard in the 2005 Galant.

O'Neill: “And it has moved the vehicle up to one of the best in its class.”

The 2005 Galant gets one of the Institute's top ratings, good.

It is possible to get something even better than a good, but the Institute reserves a best pick for only the top safety performers. So far, not one vehicle with standard equipment has received that honor in this test -- that is, until now.

The $28,000 2004 Saab 9-3, is $11,000 less than the Saab 9-5. In fact, the Saab 9-3 is one of the least expensive cars in this group. Remember, the barrier is going 31 miles-an-hour, right into what would be a woman's head. Even O'Neill is surprised how few probable injuries there are.

O'Neill: “Well, if you were in a crash like this you're going to be really shaken up very badly, but potentially you can get out of this vehicle and walk away.”

The Saab 9-3 gets a rating of good, and the Institute's top honor, a best pick.

What do the manufacturer's think of their cars' performance in these tests? They all say their vehicles meet or exceed "all federal motor vehicle safety standards." Jaguar points out it received a "4 star rating" in the government's side impact test.

Mercedes, Lexus, and Volvo say their cars are built to protect drivers in all types of accidentsand no single test can "replicate the real world scenario."

Thomas Broberg is Volvo's deputy safety director:

Broberg: “It’s just one test in one situation, and in the field you can have a large number of different situations appearing.”

O'Neill says most of these cars did well because they had standard side protection.

O'Neill: “We're going to see more and more cars with head protecting air bags as standard equipment. It should never have been options in the first place, and we'll see improved performance appearing in new cars very quickly.”

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