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Some small cars fare poorly in side-impact crash test

A new side impact crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) — a non-profit group funded by insurance companies — hopes to improve auto safety and reduce claims.  NBC's Lea Thompson talks with IIHS spokesman Brian O'Neill about the results.

Wherever two roads meet, so can two cars. And the results are often deadly.

A new side impact crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) — a non-profit group funded by insurance companies — hopes to improve auto safety and reduce claims. Experts at the Institute say this new test was particularly tough. And the results seem to prove them right.

It's called a T-bone — a blow from the side, often caught on red light cameras. A car comes from nowhere and slams into you at an intersection. Side crashes are the second leading cause of death and serious injuries on our roads and more and more of them these days involve trucks and SUVS hitting small cars — often with catastrophic results.

That's why Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and his team have designed a new side crash test. They think it reflects the reality of today's roads better than the government's test - which every vehicle must pass to be sold in the United States.

"This is the government's barrier," says O'Neill as he shows us the barrier used in the old test. "It represents the front end of a car. It was designed in the early 1980s. In contrast, we've chosen a barrier to represent vehicles that are very common in today's fleets, SUVs and pick-up trucks — taller, higher, and contoured.

Another difference — the government uses a tall, heavy man in its test. The Institute puts a small woman or teenager in the front and rear seats.

It all adds up to a difficult test — one that is especially hard for small cars, like the 13 popular models in this latest round of Institute tests. They may be inexpensive and fuel efficient, but O'Neill believes that his test shows they are not as safe as they could be.

"This test is tough for small cars," he says.

First up was the 2005 Dodge Neon. The barrier — which simulates an SUV — is coming down the runway at 31 miles an hour.

"The dummy's head is struck by the barrier," says O'Neill as he watches the test. "We get high forces on the dummy's torso and pelvis. We're talking about skull fracture and brain injuries -- multiple rib fractures, punctured lungs, lacerated spleens. Plus, probably a fractured pelvis. This would be very, very tough to survive."

The Neon is rated "poor," the Institute's lowest rating.

After two more tests and looking at the measurements from those sophisticated dummies, O'Neill says two other cars have similar problems — the 2004 Nissan Sentra and the 2005 Mazda 3. Both are rated poor.

The Institute found two other cars did just a little better, the 2005 Ford Focus and the 2005 Mitsubishi Lancer.

"What we have here is contact between the head and barrier," says O'Neill as he watches the Ford Focus test. "Very serious."

But both cars still get rated "poor."

"To get a 'poor' rating, we are saying that people in a crash of that severity would sustain serious and life threatening injuries."

O'Neill says one important way to improve safety is to add airbags with head protection to the sides of the cars. That gives an extra cushion between the people inside the car and what is hitting them.

The Institute tests cars only with their standard equipment — and just five of these small cars come with standard side airbags. The rest make side airbags available, as a $400-700 option, but even those airbags aren't always enough to raise a car's rating in this test.

"This dummy's in trouble," says O'Neill as he watches the 2005 Saturn ION, without side airbags.

Saturn wanted to know how its ION with optional side head protecting airbags would do, so it paid the Institute to do another test. The airbags helped, but not enough.     

Just because a car has a side impact curtain that comes down to protect the head doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great car.

"It means it will protect you in some crashes. But in a crash this severe, when you've got too much collapse of the structure, the airbag is not going to be as effective as it would be had that structure not collapsed."

So, with and without side airbags, the Saturn ION gets a "poor" rating.

Surprisingly, all the cars that come with side airbags as standard equipment fare poorly — O'Neill says the 2005 Suzuki Aerio's airbag doesn't protect the head. And the others? Their structure isn't strong enough to keep the simulated SUV from barging right into the car. The 2005 Suzuki Forenza, the 2005 Hyundai Elantra, the 2005 Volkswagen New Beetle 2-door and the 2004 Kia Spectra — all get "poor" ratings.

"We are disappointed," sums up O'Neill.

But the good news is, if you add a head and body protecting air bag to a small car with a good tough, structure, it can do better than a "poor" — like the 2005 Toyota Corolla.

Toyota also paid the Institute to test the Corolla twice — with and without its optional side airbags. It really is a dramatic difference.

"The main difference is we're looking at a skull fracture and brain injury here," says O'Neill as he watches the Corolla with no airbags. "And no head injuries at all over here," when the Corolla with head curtains and a bag that comes out of the seat to protect the body is tested.

The Corolla without the side airbags gets a "poor" rating. The one with airbags earns an "acceptable" — the Institute's second highest rating.      

The Institute did the same thing with the newly designed 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

"Look at the driver's head here," says O'Neill as he watches the Cobalt without side airbags. "This head is now struck by this intruding barrier that's driving into the occupant."A very serious event."

The Cobalt gets a "poor" rating without side airbags.

But when you add the optional side airbags, the Cobalt is "acceptable."

Side airbags with head protection in the Cobalt cost $395. Is it worth it?

"Look at the difference," says O'Neill.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is pushing manufacturers to put head- and body-protecting side airbags in all cars. It believes proper structural design and side airbags are critical for small-car safety.

So, of the 16 cars in this round of testing, 14 — some of them with side airbags and some without — rated "poor." But, remember, when optional side airbags were added to the Chevy Cobalt and the Toyota Corolla, they got the second highest rating, "acceptable".

"It proves that small cars don't have to be poor performers in this test," says O'Neill.

That is significant, O'Neill says, because it shows small cars can be made safer. But still, he cautions, small cars will never do as well as big cars in this kind of crash test.

"The fact they are smaller and lighter puts them at a disadvantage when they're hit by this relatively heavy moving barrier that represents an SUV," says O'Neill.     

Many car makers, like Suzuki, note how difficult this test is. Volkswagen says it is the "most demanding test" in the world. Nissan states it is "extremely severe." Along with GM, Ford, Kia and Dodge, Nissan says this test is only one limited aspect of the entire safety picture.

Mitsubishi says it hasn't found "any real world incidents" that match the Institute's test results. Volkswagen and Hyundai point out their cars have earned "the highest rating" in the government's test. Toyota and most all the other manufacturers say their car meets or exceeds federal safety standards.

So cars can pass the government's test without a head airbag. But they can't pass your test without a head airbag. Is that fair?

"It's realistic," says O'Neill. "The government's test does not assess protection offered to the head. We do."

Does O'Neill think the tests are meant to embarrass manufacturers into coming up with better designs?

"They are certainly meant to embarrass manufacturers who have poor designs to improve them, yes," he says. "Because not all of the designs are poor."

The Institute also put two of these cars through a high speed "frontal offset" test, where one vehicle hits another, slightly off center.

The results?

The 2005 Kia Spectra was rated "acceptable" And the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt earned the Institute's highest rating, "good." The Cobalt was also named a best pick.