Detroit — Most small SUVs have failed the insurance industry’s latest frontal crash tests, but oddly enough, they’re just as safe as before.
That’s because the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety updated the test so that it places more emphasis on ensuring the safety of rear seat passengers.
Only the Ford Escape and Volvo XC40 received top marks of “good” in this year’s tests published on Tuesday. The Toyota RAV4 was rated “acceptable”, while the Audi Q3, Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester were “marginal”.
The rest, the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and HR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-5 and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross received the lowest rating of “poor”.
IIHS President David Harkey said the test will be changed because vehicle structures, airbags and seat belts have made SUVs safer for front-seat passengers than those in the back. Now, the risk of fatal injuries for rear-seat passengers is 46% higher than front-seat drivers, Harkey said.
“Previously we just focused on how well the rider was protected,” Harkey said. “It’s not that the vehicle has become any less safe.”
The institute has changed its widely watched tests in the past to get automakers to make safety improvements, and Harkey says they usually respond to the changes.
While seat belts keep rear seat passengers restrained, they are susceptible to head and neck injuries, and in many SUVs, the belts are relatively non-technical and simply tighten in the event of a crash.
Newer seat belts have sensors that determine a crash is imminent and they pull a passenger into the proper seated position before a crash, slowing the passenger’s speed with the vehicle, Harkey said. After impact, they loosen up a bit to keep the straps from climbing up from the pelvis into the abdomen, where they can cause serious internal injuries, he said.
Some automakers have already installed more sophisticated seat belts in their rear seats, which can be done without a major model update, Harkey said. “The industry has always responded well to the tests we’ve put in place,” he said. “We expect that they will do so in this case, and we expect that they can do so quickly.”
The institute used a crash dummy representing a small woman or 12-year-old child to test for rear-seat passenger injuries, and Harkey says the dummy does a good job of showing the risk to passengers of all sizes .
When the IIHS introduced the moderate overlap front crash test in 1995, most vehicles were rated poor or marginal. Automakers responded with stronger structures and airbags to make front-seat drivers safer, and all 15 small SUV models used to get good reviews.
In the original moderate overlap test, a vehicle approaches an aluminum barrier at 40 mph. Approximately 40% of the vehicle width hits the crash barrier on the driver’s side.
Some of the SUVs tested have more sophisticated rear seatbelts, 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 find out if they’re firing at the right time?” he said.
Small SUVs are the most popular new vehicles sold in the US So far this year, compact and economy SUVs together account for 23.4% of all new vehicle sales, according to Edmunds.com.