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Side-Impact Rule Provides Needed Upgrades, Misses Some Marks

Sept. 5, 2007

Side-Impact Rule Provides Needed Upgrades, Misses Some Marks

Statement of Robert Shull, Deputy Director for Auto Safety and Regulatory Policy at Public Citizen

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken an important first step with the side-impact standard it released today. NHTSA should be congratulated for this improved standard, but its work is far from done.

Two important changes will help ensure that automakers design vehicles to protect more people from more types of side-impact crashes:

  • Automakers will now have to build vehicles to protect people from side-impact collisions not only with other vehicles but also with stationary objects (such as trees and other objects on the road). Vehicles will be subjected to a tougher performance test that integrates two kinds of testing: dynamic pole tests, representing side-impact crashes with stationary objects, and movable deforming barrier (MDB) tests, replicating side-impact crashes with other vehicles. Previously NHTSA tested using only MDB tests.
  • For the first time, NHTSA is mandating the use of not just average-size male dummies but also petite female dummies in gathering crash test injury data. This change forces auto manufacturers to consider side-impact designs safest for broader population segments.

Now that NHTSA has taken these important steps, it must immediately address some unfinished business to protect the public.

First, the agency must address the incredibly important issue of compatibility, or the catastrophe of fatal mismatches between passenger cars and much larger light trucks and SUVs. The occupant of a car is three times more likely to be killed when struck by an SUV instead of a car and five times more likely to be killed when struck by a pickup truck. The upgraded side-impact standard essentially tests for a collision with a mid-size passenger car, not an SUV. To fully replicate crash scenarios and prevent the most injury, NHTSA needs to use a moving deformable barrier that is higher, stiffer and mimics a collision with a heavier, bigger SUV.

Second, NHTSA needs to improve safety for children. The dummies used in the upgraded testing, even in the back seat, do not adequately represent a child under the age of 12, leaving child occupants vulnerable and unaccounted for in safety testing. Additionally, the pole test applies only to front seat passenger tests and is not used to monitor any back seat passengers – child or otherwise. To fully protect back seat passengers, especially small children, child-size dummies must be used in addition to adult dummies in both pole and movable deforming barrier tests. 

Third, the standard does not protect against side-impact collisions so intense that the striking vehicle or object intrudes into the vehicle. The pole test adopted fails to include a minimum, acceptable intrusion limit. A strict limit on the amount of acceptable amount of cab intrusion would better prevent injury to occupants in side-impact crashes.

The mandatory side-impact safety standards will be phased in for new vehicles under 8,500 lbs. over a three-year period. All such vehicles produced after Sept. 1, 2012, must meet the standards. Heavier vehicles have an extra year to achieve full compliance; all vehicles over 8,500 lbs. produced after Sept. 1, 2013, must meet the new side-impact requirements.

NHTSA is definitely on the right track, but it still has miles to go before its job is done.