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Safe cars: Gold and silver awards

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety chooses top picks for the first time.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

After 10 years of testing cars and mini-vans, the crash test dummies have helped gather reams of information on crash survival. All that data has been added up by Brian O’Neill and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and for the first time the institute is choosing its top safety picks.

According to O’Neill, only a small number of vehicles have earned this designation. All cars must meet federal safety standards, but to get the award, each 2006car had to perform well in three even moredemanding crash tests designed by the institute.

First test: Frontal collision
The first simulates a high speed frontal collision — the leading cause of deaths and serious injuries on America’s highways.

Brian O'Neill, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: The sort of crash, where one vehicle drifts across the center line, and they have a collision, driver-side to driver-side.

When the institute started this 40 mile per hour frontal offset test a decade ago, the results were alarming.

O’Neill: We had everything from potentially fatal injuries to very debilitating and serious leg injuries.  Today in most cars, if people are buckled up, they can walk away from these kinds of crashes.

Compare how well the Saab 1993 does to the 1995 Saab: What a difference nearly 10 years can make.

O'Neill: We see major collapse of the compartment.  The dummy is flailing around.  This is obviously not good performance.  In contrast, we have excellent performance.  The compartment remains intact.  The dummy doesn’t flail around.  The injury numbers are all low.

The key, says O’Neill is making the compartments strong.

Brian O’Neill: And then putting good restraint systems inside that strong compartment.  Plus, they’ve got to have a good crumple zone, or crush zone, at the front end of the vehicle.

Second test: Side crash
The institute’s top safety picks also had to do very well in a side crash—the second deadliest accident. 

In this test, a small female dummy is broadsided by a heavy and high test sled that simulated pickup truck or SUV-rams right at the dummy’s head at 31 miles per hour.

Lea Thompson, Dateline correspondent: What do manufacturers have to do to be a top safety pick in the side-impact collision?O’Neill: First, they have to make sure that this part of the side structure are pretty strong. What we want to do is resist some of the collapse into the compartment. Then you’ve got to have inside the compartment, you need the airbags that come down and protect the head. 

A recent study by the Insurance Institute concluded that head-protecting side airbags reduced deaths in side accidents by 45 percent over five years. All the cars in the institute’s winners’ circle feature cutting-edge side airbags.

Thompson: Can you become a top safety pick without airbags that protect the head?O’Neill: Absolutely not.

Third test: Whiplash prevention
The third component in the institute’s all-around safety award? Whiplash prevention.

While not deadly, low speed, rear-end crashes are common and costly.

O’Neill: It’s very expensive.  The total cost to U.S. insurers is over $8 billion a year. 

That’s 25 percent of the total pay-out by insurance companies, so, whiplash is important to those same insurers who fund the institute and are looking for ways to reduce claims.

O’Neill: It’s an injury that could be prevented with a good seat and head restraint design.

Studies show most Americans never adjust the head restraints on the back of their seats to get the best whiplash protection— many people don’t even know that’s what they are there for.

For this test, the institute put the restraint in a middle position which O’Neill says protects the widest range of people, although it may not be the best position for the shortest or tallest drivers. Even so, the institute says it found some seats did offer good whiplash protection for the average driver.

O’Neill: We want the head restraint to be high enough and close enough to the back of the head of a dummy so it can catch the head as the seat gets pushed forward in a rear end crash.

Combining the results of the three tests, the institute has chosen ten cars it says are the safest in each weight class. So, which will get a trophy from the institute?

The awards
Six get a “Silver Award,” two cars from Volkswagen, three from Audi and one from General Motors. They scored tops in the side and frontal crashes, but not as well in whiplash protection.

Only four cars get the highest distinction: the institute’s “Gold Award.” They passed all three tests with flying colors. One large car—the Ford 500, also sold as the Mercury Montego, but only if you buy its optional side airbags. Two midsize cars, the Subaru Legacy and the Saab 1993. And a small and inexpensive car, the Honda Civic.

O’Neill: What this means is that these four vehicles, in their size classes are the safest vehicles out there in our estimation.Thompson: There are going to be some manufacturers who are going to say, “Wait a minute.  Your criteria was way too tough.”O’Neill: Well, we wanted the criteria to be tough. We wanted it to be an elite group.Thompson: Do you suspect that we’re gonna start seeing those cute little trophies in car manufacturers’ advertising?O’Neill: We’re almost certain that’s going to happen.   

The Insurance Institute says while many minivans sold today are safe, none made the grade this time around. Also, Insurance Institute president Brian O’Neill will soon be retiring. William Clay Ford, Jr, the Chairman and CEO of the Ford Motor Company this week called O’Neill “a true safety champion.”