Impact drivers: Your new car is less likely to kill you today than 20 years ago, and you have local research to thank

At the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center in Greene County, cars undergo rigorous and ever-evolving safety tests. Earlier this year, the 2015 Nissan Murano topped other small SUVs in a relatively new kind of front-end crash test. Photo courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety At the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center in Greene County, cars undergo rigorous and ever-evolving safety tests. Earlier this year, the 2015 Nissan Murano topped other small SUVs in a relatively new kind of front-end crash test. Photo courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The gunmetal gray 2013 Toyota RAV-4 sitting on a rotating platform under studio lights at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center north of Ruckersville last Thursday afternoon had not had a good day.

A few hours earlier, it had been hurtled at 40 miles per hour at a semi-rigid barrier, which struck the SUV’s right bumper and left the passenger side a mangled mass of twisted steel. A wheel jutted out at a right angle. Half the windshield was a draped blanket of webbed glass. Now, a test coordinator and a photographer conducted an autopsy of sorts, going over every inch of the car to analyze damage to it and the pair of dummies still strapped inside. Information from onboard test equipment and high speed cameras would add to their picture of the crash.

“This dashboard disintegrated,” the test coordinator said, holding out a long piece of gray plastic to Raul Arbelaez, IIHS’ VP for research. “It just came apart. Trim pieces everywhere.”

A bad day for the Toyota, maybe, but a routine one at IIHS’ Greene County facility, which conducts hundreds of tests each year on the most popular cars on America’s roads. The nonprofit institute was founded in 1959 by major auto insurers—which still provide the organization’s more than $20 million budget today—with an aim toward improving highway safety. Since 1992, it’s been buying new cars off retail lots and smashing them to bits at the research center in Greene. Data from those tests and others go into IIHS’ annual safety ratings, closely watched by automakers and consumers alike.

More than two decades since it opened, the Greene facility is expanding to include a new test track covered by a five-acre canvas. It’s expected to be open this summer, and will allow for year-round testing of the crash-prevention systems that are becoming increasingly important in advancing safety on the road, Arbelaez said.

He and the rest of IIHS’ local research team have watched their tests, which are tougher and more extensive than the ones that go into federal safety ratings for cars, change the auto industry in big ways.

One example: The RAV-4 they’d wrecked that morning was part of a new study of what are called “small overlap” tests, which replicate a very common scenario where a car clips another vehicle or an object, damaging its weaker outer front edges. IIHS introduced the test in 2012 after research indicated such crashes cause a significant number of the 10,000 annual front-end collision deaths. Initially, nearly all models got poor or marginal ratings. The passenger compartments crumpled, thrusting airbags aside and crushing dummies’ legs. Just three years later, many models snag “Good” ratings. Now IIHS is trying the same test on the passenger side of a number of previous poor performers.

“That’s one thing that makes those of us that work here extremely proud,” Arbelaez said, “that the work we’re doing here, we know it’s making a difference in saving lives.”

For more on driving in Charlottesville, continue reading here.