AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) buys approximately 100 new cars and trucks, then crashes them head-on into a wall or bashes them broadside to see how well they're likely to protect occupants in real-world collisions. The $4 million taxpayers spend on this annual wrecking spree is only a fraction of the hundreds of millions carmakers spend to design one vehicle. But because NHTSA's results are made public, they've become a strong incentive for automakers to improve their safety scores.
And improve they have: Just 30 percent of the 94 new vehicles rated in 1985, when NHTSA's crash program was well under way, received high frontal-crash scores. In 2001, 90 percent of the 138 new vehicles rated were awarded four or five stars, the top ratings. Consumers aren't the only ones who benefit from those results. The familiar safety stars have also helped sell cars as automakers tout high ratings in their ads.
Yet current government crash tests--a full-frontal collision at 35 miles per hour and a simulated side impact at 34 mph--tell only part of the safety story consumers need for an informed purchase. Another part comes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an organization supported by the insurance industry. Rather than a full-frontal test, which focuses on vehicle restraints such as air bags and safety belts, the IIHS uses an offset-frontal test that provides important information about whether a vehicle's structure intrudes on the driver in a crash. The results of the IIHS offset test sometimes contrast sharply with NHTSA's. Thirteen currently rated cars, trucks, and minivans that earned four or five stars in NHTSA's full-frontal tests, including the top-selling Ford F-150 pickup, received a Poor rating in the IIHS test (see "When Crash Tests Collide," page 12).
Safety experts agree that all three types of test are important. The Consumer Reports Safety Assessments, which begin on page 15, make sense of these disparate data by combining all available crash-test information with our on-road test results of how well vehicles can help you avoid an accident.
However, Consumers Union, publisher of CONSUMER REPORTS, believes that the government should conduct or oversee all the crash tests needed by consumers who make their vehicle choice based on safety. Such testing is central to NHTSA's role of protecting consumers, as charged by Congress. It's also time to improve the tests themselves. While current tests provide valuable information, it's important to understand their limitations.
* Published NHTSA and IIHS test results apply best to average-sized …