It’s not every day that you get to take a trip to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and see them crash cars. There’s something primal about it. It’s kind of the same reason we can’t look away when we see a car crash on the highway.
But what’s cool about the IIHS is they do more than crash cars. They gather data. A LOT of data. And the data they gather helps determine how well your vehicle might perform in the even of a car crash.
(Side note: I refer to them as car crashes, not “car accidents.” It’s terminology I picked up when I worked with first responders. It’s never an accident. It’s always a crash as the result of cause and effect).
Who is the IIHS?
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety was created in 1959 as a non-profit funded by a consortium of insurance companies. Their job is to assess the risk of specific vehicles in the event of a crash.
Yes, the government (NHTSA) does this too. In fact, it’s the government that often requires safety standards to change for automotive companies. But I can’t imagine anyone would argue with an organization that essentially fact-checks the work that the government does and then pushes that work even further.
For example, it was back in the mid 1990s that the IIHS started looking at the types of collisions that were frequently seen at salvage yards. They weren’t the type of frontal crashes that the government tested for (full flat impact with a barrier). They were typically a type of frontal overlap, where only a portion of the front maintains impact. The results were startling and started a domino effect in the automotive industry to make safety not only important but cool.
This visit was to their test facility located in Ruckersville, Virginia, which consists of an indoor crash test area, educational displays, and an outdoor 5 acre all-weather dome for testing safety features on vehicles.
How the IIHS Determines Safety of a Vehicle
The first thing they do is purchase a vehicle.
Yep, they purchase it. They want to ensure that the vehicle they put to the test is the exact same vehicle a consumer might get from a dealer.
Then they put it through a series of tests that include:
- Frontal crash test
- Side crash test
- Roof strength test (for rollover scenarios)
- Head restraints and seats test
- Front crash prevention test
- Headlight evaluation
- LATCH evaluation
Notice the last few criteria that are a bit newer. They don’t just look at how a vehicle performs in a crash but how well a vehicle can be prevented from being in a crash, which is obviously a better goal.
They don’t test every single model every single year. But they do retest vehicles once significant changes have been made for the vehicle that could change its ratings.
Seeing a Car Crash Firsthand (VIDEO)
While I was visiting the IIHS test facility in Ruckersville, Virginia (P.S. it’s not typically open to the public although I think it should be!), I had a chance to see the results of a lot of their crash tests and even got to witness one firsthand.
In the test facility, they prepared their “arena” for a collision with a 2016 Chevy Equinox and a barrier at 40 mph. That doesn’t sound very fast but when you watch the crash, you’ll notice a few things – it happens SO FAST, the crash is VERY LOUD, and it doesn’t take much to DEMOLISH the vehicle (more on that later).
We also got to spend a little time under their All-Weather Dome where they test the crash prevention systems, like automated front braking or rear braking, and parking assist. See it all right here in my IIHS video:
Why Any of This Matters to You
In 2009, the IIHS commemorated their 50th anniversary by setting up a crash between a 2009 Chevy Malibu and a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. The results, which are on display at IIHS, are astonishing. At first glance, both vehicles seem to look well beyond repair. But a closer look makes it pretty obvious that the occupant of the 2009 vehicle would have likely walked away. The 1959 driver would have either sustained serious injury or would not have survived.
(If you want to see the actual video of this crash test, you should check it out. It’s pretty shocking!)
We often don’t think about vehicle safety until we need it. But I urge you to make it one of the factors you’re considering when buying a new or used vehicle.
And if you do purchase used vehicles or believe in driving your vehicle into the ground, make sure you understand the shortcomings of your vehicle. In just a three year span, the Mazda CX-9 went from a poor IIHS rating to a Top Safety Pick+ (and that’s just from 2014 to 2017).
Make sure you know the true value of your vehicle whether you’re holding on to your car or making your next purchase.