Detroit — Most small SUVs have passed the latest head-on crash tests performed by the insurance industry but, strangely, are just as safe as they were before.
That’s because the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety updated the test to put more emphasis on rear-seat safety.
Only the Ford Escape and Volvo XC40 achieved the maximum “good” rating in this year’s tests released on Tuesday. The Toyota RAV4 was rated “acceptable”, while Audi’s Q3, Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester were “marginal”.
The remainder, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and HR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-5, and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross scored the lowest of “poor”.
IIHS President David Harkey said the test was modified because vehicle structures, airbags and seat belts made SUVs safer for front-seat passengers than rear-seat passengers. Now, the risk of fatal injuries is 46 percent higher for rear-seat passengers than for front-seat drivers, Harkey said.
“Before, we just focused on how protected the driver was,” Harkey said. “It’s not that the vehicle has become less safe.”
The institute has a history of making changes to its widely followed tests in an effort to get automakers to improve safety, and Harkey says they routinely respond to changes.
While seat belts restrain rear seat passengers, they are susceptible to head and neck injuries, and in many SUVs the belts are relatively low-tech and simply tighten in the event of an accident.
Newer belts have sensors that determine that a crash is imminent and pull a passenger into the correct seating position before a crash, slowing the passenger’s speed with the vehicle, Harkey said. After impact, they loosen a bit to keep the belts from lifting out of the pelvis and into the abdomen where they can cause serious internal injuries, she said.
Some automakers have already put more sophisticated belts on the rear seats, which can be done without a major model update, Harkey said. “The industry has always been good at responding to the tests we’ve introduced,” she said. “We expect them to do it in this case, and we expect they will be able to do it quickly.”
Small SUVs fare poorly in the new, tougher side-impact crash test
The institute used a dummy representing a small woman or 12-year-old child to test for injuries to rear-seat passengers, and Harkey says the dummy does a good job of showing risk for passengers of all sizes.
When the IIHS introduced the moderate overlap frontal crash test in 1995, most vehicles were rated poor or marginal. Automakers responded with stronger structures and airbags to make front-seat passengers safer, and all 15 small SUV models used to get good ratings.
In the original moderate overlap test, a vehicle travels 40 mph towards an aluminum barrier. Approximately 40% of the vehicle width hits the barrier on the driver’s side.
Some of the SUVs tested have more sophisticated rear seat belts, but the timing needs to be worked out to work better in the milliseconds before and after a crash, Harkey said. “Now they have to go back and figure out if they’re firing at the right time?” he said.
Small SUVs are the most popular new vehicles sold in the U.S. So far this year, compact and subcompact SUVs combined account for 23.4 percent of all new vehicle sales, according to Edmunds.com.