Midsize sedans fare poorly in side-impact tests

/ Source: The Associated Press

Twelve midsize sedans earned the lowest safety rating from the insurance industry in crash tests designed to show what happens when pickup trucks or sport utility vehicles hit cars in the side.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which released the test results Sunday, said they could spur automakers to make side air bags standard because vehicles with both head- and torso-protecting side air bags performed best.

Models of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord with optional side air bags were the only cars to earn the highest safety rating from the institute. Without the air bags, the Camry and the Accord got the lowest rating.

About 15 percent of Camry buyers get the optional air bags, which cost $650, Toyota Motor Co. spokeswoman Martha Voss said. She said Toyota has no plans to make them standard because the added expense could turn away buyers.

“There are some people who are more price sensitive. Eighty-five percent of them are apparently not willing to spend that,” Voss said.

Vehicles with standard side air bags did not necessarily do well. The Saturn L-Series has a standard torso-protecting air bag, but the crash dummy’s head was hit. The Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, which have combination head-torso bags, did not protect the dummy’s torso. All three vehicles were rated as poor.

The only car tested without standard or optional side air bags was the Suzuki Verona, rated as poor.

The institute said these were the first consumer tests to use a dummy representing a short female. Researchers wanted to make sure side-curtain air bags, which come down from the ceiling, were long enough to protect smaller occupants.

Each vehicle was hit with a 3,300-pound barrier moving at 31 mph. A vehicle earned the highest safety rating if its driver wearing a seat belt would have a lower likelihood of serious injuries in an actual crash.

Chris Tinto, Toyota’s director of safety regulations, said the institute’s test is “very, very severe.”

The institute’s president Brian O’Neill, said side air bags that protect the head are critical because they have been shown to reduce the number of deaths by up to 45 percent. Side air bags that protect the chest and abdomen are less effective, he said.

Design improvements could minimize injuries in side-impact crashes, O’Neill said.

The Mitsubishi Galant had the best structure among sedans because it was not severely crushed, O’Neill said, although it rated as poor because the dummy’s head and torso were not protected. The Dodge Stratus was the most damaged.

About 9,600 people were killed in side-impact crashes in 2002, the institute said. While driver death rates in front-impact crashes are half what they were in 1980, side-impact crashes are killing a growing percentage of drivers, the institute said.

Side-impact crashes accounted for 37 percent of driver deaths in 2000-2001, compared with 26 percent in 1980-1981, the institute said.

O’Neill said better vehicle design and increased seat belt use are helping drivers survive front-impact crashes. He said car drivers are at increasing risk in side-impact crashes because SUVs and pickups are so much larger and many vehicles lack side air bags.

The institute buys cars for testing based on sales volume. If an air bag was optional, the institute tested the vehicle without it. Manufacturers could supply a second car with an air bag for a second test.