Carmaker cooperation reduces crash deaths

Car and truck makers agreed to adjust the design of their vehicles so that front bumpers align better.

September 29, 2011
by CAR staff

Before alignment, the pickup truck's bumper is significantly higher than that of the car. The image at top shows the alignment after the cooperative redesign.

A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has shown that recent cooperation among car and truck manufacturers has led to a reduction in highway deaths. The car and truck makers agreed to adjust the design of their vehicles so that front bumpers align better to absorb the forces of impact.

The IIHS found that previous generations of SUVs and pickups were more likely to be involved in accidents that killed the occupants of other vehicles than car and minivans of the same weight. For example, in the US, among one- to four-year-old vehicles weighing 3,000-3,499 pounds, SUVs were involved in crashes that killed car/minivan occupants at a rate of 44 deaths per  million registered vehicle years in 2000-01. That rate dropped by nearly two-thirds to 16 in 2008-09. In comparison, cars and minivans in the same weight category were involved in the deaths of other car/minivan occupants at a slightly higher rate of 17 per million in 2008-09.

The researchers attribute much of the change to two things: improved crash protection in the cars and minivans, thanks to side airbags and stronger structures, and newer designs of SUVs and pickups that align their front-end energy-absorbing structures with those of cars.

The more compatible designs are the result of efforts by automakers, the US government, and the Institute to address the problem of mismatched vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked automakers to address the compatibility issue amid concern about the changing vehicle mix on US roads. In response, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, and the Institute led a series of meetings in 2003 to come up with solutions. Participating automakers included BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

The companies agreed to build the front ends of SUVs and pickups so that their energy-absorbing structures would line up better with those of cars, reducing the likelihood that an SUV or pickup would override a car in a collision. Better alignment allows both vehicles’ front ends to manage the crash energy, helping to keep it away from the occupant compartments.

The automakers also pledged to strengthen head protection in all vehicles in order to improve outcomes when an SUV or pickup strikes another vehicle in the side. They accomplished this by installing more head-protecting side airbags. “By working together, the automakers got life-saving changes done
quickly,” says Joe Nolan, the Institute’s chief administrative officer and a co-author of the new study. “The new designs have made a big difference on the road.”
The deadline for implementing the compatibility changes was September 2009, but many of the 2004-08 models in the study already complied. Among 2004 models, 54 percent of SUVs and pickups met the front-end requirements, and among 2007 models, 81 percent did.