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2011 Toyota Sienna in a crash test at Toyota's testing facility in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Toyota)
2011 Toyota Sienna in a crash test at Toyota's testing facility in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Toyota)

The Green Highway

Safe - and sound: Record 115 vehicles earn top honours Add to ...

One of the most impressive and memorable things I’ve seen in covering the automotive industry was a crash test – a real one with two vehicles hurtling into each other at a closing speed of 110 km/h.

The force of the impact and the noise were unbelievable. The building shook, parts flew, glass broke, the dust settled and suddenly, there was silence. The front of each car was crushed beyond recognition. Certain death for all passengers, I immediately concluded.

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Then we walked toward the wreckage. They were two four-door cars, a mid-size and a subcompact. The engineer opened the driver doors and the passenger doors. They all opened perfectly – they weren’t deformed on either car. The crash test dummies showed no signs of damage and were securely belted in surrounded by airbags. The engineer’s conclusion – to be verified by all the sensors in the dummies – was that each occupant would be able to walk away from this crash. Amazing.

This was brought to mind by this month’s report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit group financed by the U.S. insurance industry, which named a record number of Top Safety Picks. A total of 115 vehicles received the distinction, including 69 cars, 38 SUVs, five minivans and three pickup trucks.

The institute says each provides a high level of protection in the four most common types of crashes: front, side, rear and rollover. This year’s list significantly raises the record number of 66 announced by the institute last year. Clearly, great progress is being made.

The crash test I watched took place at Toyota’s Higashi Fuji Technical Centre south of Tokyo. The cars that were destroyed were a Yaris and a Crown, a Japanese edition that’s slightly larger than a Camry. What I was seeing was the “passive safety” of energy-absorbing body structures and occupant restraint systems.

I asked the engineer if this was the most severe of the test performed at this facility. “Oh, no,” he replied. He explained in technical terms the forces possible and said that, out of five, this crash was a two. A five kills everybody but a four is survivable. In other words, even a much “worse” crash than this wouldn’t have been fatal.

They must be doing some good work at Higashi Fuji because Toyota, including Lexus and Scion, has the most vehicles of any auto maker with 15 models scoring top ratings from the IIHS. The Camry finally made it for the first time. General Motors has 14 models on the list. Volkswagen and Audi are next with 13 models each.

The test I saw was one the IIHS also performs. It was a frontal-impact, offset test in which only part of the front of each car hits the other one. The impact forces are the same as a straight-on frontal impact test but a smaller section of the car has to absorb all of the force.

Both the IIHS and the major auto makers also do side-impact tests and roll-over tests. The famous Moose Test was developed in Sweden and actually tests the vehicles’ ability to avoid a charging moose on a slippery road – that test is about stability control.

The big improvement in this year’s score is generally related to the roof strength criteria, which is important for rollover protection. To earn a Top Safety Pick Award, a vehicle must earn top marks from the IIHS for front and side impact protection, rollover protection and whiplash protection. However, with so many cars winning the award, the IIHS is now looking at making the awards tougher.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has reported that U.S. traffic deaths in 2010 fell to 32,885, the lowest level since 1949. That trend is being followed in most mature economies. Worldwide road traffic crashes cause more than 1.3 million deaths a year; 36 per cent are in cars or trucks, 25 per cent are pedestrians.

The industry is turning more attention to pedestrian safety after making great progress in vehicle safety. I can comment on the improvements in vehicle safety – I saw it with my own eyes.

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