Mid-size side impact crash tests

/ Source: Dateline NBC

Whether you live in a small town or big city you've seen it happen -- you may have done it yourself. Drivers run red lights and stop signs everyday, sometimes with deadly results. The question is, if you got hit broadside, would your car protect you? In an exclusive report, Dateline has the results of side impact testing on the most popular cars on the road. A side impact, or T-bone as some people call them, most often happens at intersections when one car turns into the lane of another. Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent Lea Thompson reports.

When an SUV comes careening into you from the side, it is the deadliest place you can be in a car. Unlike a head-on crash, where you are protected by several feet of steel, engine and bumper, if you're hit from the side, all you've got between you and the other guy is a few inches of door and somewindow glass.

Brian O'Neil: “There essentially is no crumple zone.”

And if it is high-riding, heavy vehicle that barrels into your car, the results are particularly startling and often catastrophic.

O'Neil: “Today there is a proliferation of SUVs and pickup trucks. When you're hit by the hood of an intruding pickup truck or SUV, it's bad news.”

Brian O'Neill runs the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit organization financed by insurance companies. Its mission is to make cars safer and, as a result, cut insurance costs and payouts.

O'Neil: “When we rate cars what we're trying to do is embarrass the manufacturers that have poor performance.”

The Institute has been very successful in getting manufacturers to redesign cars to make you safer in a frontal crash. Now it is hoping to do the same thing with side impact collisions. All vehicles on the road do have to pass the government's side impact standard, but O'Neill thinks it is outdated. The government uses a dummy representing an average size male that doesn't register head injuries and it's test only looks at what happens when similar size vehicles collide.

The Institute loads up a lighter, shorter "soccer mom" as the driver, and adds a teenager in the back seat. A sled represents a high, heavy SUV or Pickup slamming into a car at 31 mph.

Lea Thompson: “How realistic is that?”

O'Neil: “Well, it's a reasonable speed for an urban intersection.”

It’s the type of collision where someone runs a red light or a stop sign. The question is, can anyone survive a crash if the front of an SUV hits them in the head at 31 mph?

O'Neil: “It's pretty unlikely you'd go through this kind of crash with no injury, but certainly with this kind of crash you can prevent all the serious injuries.”

It's hard to believe, but just a few design changes really canmean the difference between your life and death. How do midsize cars do on the Insurance Institute’s new test? The cars cost between $19,000 and $23,000.

2004 Mitsubishi Galant

Like all of the cars it crashes, the Institute buys the Galant off a dealer's lot. The sensors show the driver dummy takes quite a blow to the head, but still, O'Neill is impressed with how little the Galant's buckles around the driver.

O'Neil: “Structurally, this is the best design. There's very little collapse of the structure here.”

Still if this dummy was a person, she'd be suffering from a serious skull fracture and internal injuries. So the Galant gets the Institute's worst rating, poor.

2004 Dodge Stratus

The driver of the 2004 Dodge Stratus also takes a direct hit to the head.

O'Neil: “It's not a particularly hard hit.”

But more serious, there are injuries to the neck and torso.

O'Neil: “With multiple injuries all over the body, there's a chance you don't survive.”

It is a possible fatality, and the Stratus, which is also sold as the Chrysler Sebring, gets a poor.

2004 Suzuki Verona

In the Verona test, the dummy takes an extremely hard blow to the head and its body is crushed.

O'Neil: “A person probably has a very good chance of dying.”

The Verona also gets a poor rating.

2005 Nissan Altima

In this test, there is another heavy blow to the head and body.

Thompson: “Does the combination of all of these injuries mean that this woman probably would not survive?”

O'Neil: “A person sustaining the kind of forces we recorded // would almost certainly not survive the crash.”

Probably a death, and a poor rating for the Altima.

2004 Mazda 6

The sensors show very high forces on the head and the body, the kinds of forces that probably would lead to a fatal injury for a real person in a real crash, says O’Neill. So the Mazda 6 has another likely death for the driver. The teenage passenger in the back has major internal injuries. So another poor rating.

So far, no midsize car rates above a poor on the side impact test, and if these dummies had been people, many would likelybe dead. Keep in mind, being broadsided is one of the deadliest types of crashes there is, but there are ways to improve your odds, including using inflatable head protection. 

The Institute says in order to avoid serious injury or death in an accident like this, every person in the car will have to have an airbag to protect the head, but is that enough?

O'Neil: “No, by itself, that's not enough.”

The Hyundai Sonata is one of the rare midsize cars that comes standard with  a side airbag that protects the head.

O'Neil: “And this bag does a good job of protecting the head. But the torso injury measures in this test were relatively high. And that's because there's too much intrusion here. So despite the presence of this torso bag, the dummy was not effectively protected. This armrest is driven into the side of the dummy.”

The armrest on the Sonata causes internal injuries and a fractured pelvis so the Sonata, even with side impact airbags gets a poor rating.

2004 Saturn L Series

The Saturn also comes standard with a side airbag, but the Institute says it was designed for men, not women.

O'Neil: “We've got a significant risk of a head injury because the curtain does not provide adequate coverage for a person this size. Plus, we're also recording high forces on the torso.”

While the Saturn L has a curtain airbag, it still gets a rating of poor.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu

Side airbags don't come standard on the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu so the Institute tests the car without them.

O'Neil: “There is no protection for the head. We also have significant injuries recorded on the torso of the dummy.”

The Malibu gets a poor. Chevy knows with the optional side curtain airbag the Malibu will do better, and it asks the Institute to re-test. The difference is dramatic.

O'Neil: “Now instead of the head being struck by the barrier, we've got a nice energy absorbing and protective cushion.”

Thompson: “This airbag works.”

O'Neil: “This airbag works and does a very good job of protecting the dummies' heads.”

With that side curtain, the Malibu goes from the worst rating, poor, to the Institute's second highest rating, acceptable. And that side curtain costs only $395 more.

Thompson: “Probably worth it?”

O'Neil: “I don't think ‘probably’ worth it. Do you want your head to be at risk of a skull fracture or a brain injury versus being protected by this cushion? It's worth a few hundred dollars.”

Honda Accord

The Honda Accord is one of the best selling cars in America, but you can't get an optional side airbag for the basic models.

O'Neil: “Once again, we get the head struck by the barrier. A person might die in a crash like this.”

With that potential death, the Accord gets a poor. But the higher end Accord, EX, comes standard with inflatable side head protection. Honda asks the Institute to test that model, too.          

O'Neil: “We did and it made a big difference. We go from injury forces that are potentially fatal without this airbag combination, to injury forces that suggest there would not be serious injuries in this crash.”

The difference, O'Neill says, is truly a matter of life and death. Without the head protection, a potential death, but with it, the Accord gets the Institute's top rating, a good.

Toyota Camry

There is no standard head protecting side airbag here either..

O'Neil: “The head is struck by the barrier, the kinds of forces that can lead to a skull fracture, major concussion, serious brain injury.”

The possibility of brain damage leaves America's best-selling car with the Institute's worst rating, poor. Toyota does offer side airbags as part of a $650 '”security package” though. Will those airbags make a difference? Once again, it is a potentially life saving difference!

In fact, the very same Camry, with only the addition of side airbags goes, once again from a poor to a good rating.

Not one of the standard inexpensive midsize cars in this round of testing gets better than a poor on the Institute's side impact test - not one. And, as you saw, there are many likely deaths. This test is showing, however, that well designed cars with head protection work. when you buy the Malibu with side airbags, it ranks acceptable. The Accord and Camry, with side airbags get the highest rating, good.

Thompson: “What do manufacturers need to do?”

O'Neil: “Manufacturers need to start making these side impact airbags that protect the head standard equipment. And in some cases, they also need to beef up their side structure to resist intrusion in these kinds of crashes.”

Car makers have announced new “voluntary” side impact protection guidelines to go into effect by September 2007. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells Dateline it is working on a tougher standard for side impact crashes. But that standard will not require side airbags, even though the agency's own studies show hundreds of lives could be saved each year with those devices.