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Highway safety and crash testing organizations

Henry Bliss stepped off a New York trolley in 1899 and was hit and killed by an automobile, becoming the first North American motor vehicle fatality. Since that time, more than 20 million people worldwide have died in traffic accidents. Government and private groups work worldwide to provide consumers with information about the safest cars to drive and safe-driver strategies to decrease accidents.

Early crash testing
Automakers began researching how to make cars safer in 1930, when they crashed cars carrying cadavers to measure the effects on vehicle occupants. Cadavers couldn't tell researchers whether a passenger could survive a crash, so they began to strap pigs, chimpanzees and, in one instance, a bear into crash test devices. Some researchers with more zeal than common sense even strapped themselves into these devices. The animal and human testing led to safety steps including the introduction of a collapsible steering column. Over a million drivers died when they were impaled on rigid steering wheels – the collapsible steering column cut death-by-steering-wheel rates by 50 percent. 

National Highway Safety Bureau
Alarmed by growing highway fatalities in the '60s, Congress instituted the National Highway Safety Bureau in 1966. The name was changed in 1970 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency is mandated to issue federal driving-safety standards and regulations with which automakers and suppliers must comply. The agency's first standard concerning seat belt assemblies was issued in 1967. Such federal standards set minimum driving-safety performance requirements with the intention of protecting the public against unreasonable risk of death or injury during a crash from the design, construction or performance of a motor vehicle. They do not mandate specific safety fixes.

NHTSA, which must answer to Congress, issues recalls when defects are found through accident data and consumer complaints. The agency is also tasked with setting fuel economy standards and promoting the use of safety devices such as seat belts, child safety seats and more. It investigates odometer fraud, and establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations. The agency began crash testing in 1972 with a Hybrid II dummy based on an early design by General Motors Co.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), supported by insurance companies, was formed in 1969 to focus on reducing highway losses. IIHS developed its own research to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage on the nation's highways. In 1992 the group opened a state-of-the-art crash test facility and began smashing new cars into offset barriers at 40 mph (5 mph faster than existing NHTSA crash testing), and later whacking them on the side, and from behind, with sleds to collect further crash test data. A second extension of IIHS is the Highway Loss Data Institute, which provides information on injury, collision and theft losses for every make and model. 

NHTSA developed a five-star crash test rating for vehicles, and IIHS developed a four-point rating of good, acceptable, marginal or poor for vehicles it crash-tests. IIHS also provides a four-part bumper crash test that shows the repair costs of low-speed (5 mph) crashes into poles and offset barriers that simulate common parking lot mishaps.

As those crash results hit the media, automakers began to use good crash-test results as selling points. As vehicle crash-test ratings moved up from a majority of poor to mediocre ratings to good ratings, the automakers began moving toward crash-avoidance technology to prevent crashes from happening at all. The electronic stability control program, based on anti-lock braking systems, was the first of such technology to show substantial promise as a crash-avoidance tool, reducing crashes on wet roads for passenger cars by 75 percent and for SUVs by 88 percent.

Both NHTSA and IIHS have websites that offer consumers a wealth of information. The IIHS Highway Loss and Data Institute site ( is more straightforward than the NHTSA site (, but each site is informative.

NHTSA can mount a recall when a safety defect is uncovered. Complaints from consumers are investigated and, if a safety defect is found, the manufacturer is ordered to conduct a recall and repair the defect. The direct route to finding recall information on the NHTSA site is to click on the Search For Recalls icon on the right sidebar and plug in the year, make and model of the vehicle.

The site also offers Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) or advisories issued by manufacturers to the dealership service departments. These are not safety or emission problems. However, if your vehicle is under warranty and the service department can confirm that your vehicle has the problem, it can be fixed for free. Only a summary of a TSB is free on the NHTSA site. For a fee, you can get the entire TSB mailed to you.

Research help
NHTSA also offers a wealth of information on child safety seats, such as recalled models, how to correctly install a child safety seat, what seat is right for your child and local child safety seat inspection sites. The site offers crash test and rollover ratings for each vehicle the agency tests. A downloadable brochure on how to choose a safer car also offers good buying tips.

Research covering many aspects of driving safety, from distracted driving to pedestrian safety, can also be accessed, but the summary is usually all a novice can handle.

NHTSA has a Vehicle Safety Hotline open between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday (1-888-327-4236).

How we benefit
IIHS is unhampered by government regulation and mandates. It is concerned primarily with the same goals as NHTSA – reducing deaths and injuries from highway crashes. But it is also interested in reducing property loss, as indicated by its widely covered bumper tests. Media coverage of these tests keeps the pressure on automakers to design better bumpers.

IIHS also researches the highway environment to discover ways to cut down on fender benders and severe crashes. It has devoted a lot of research to whiplash injuries, often derided as fraudulent in the past, which the institute now says can become lifelong. The institute also supports red light and speed cameras as a way to manage our roadways and is now studying roundabouts as a way to keep traffic moving and circumvent intersection crashes.

Highway safety ratings
The IIHS website is quite easy to navigate and offers crash-test ratings for front, side and rear impacts as well as bumper tests. Click on Ratings at the top of the Web page and plug in the make or model you are researching on the top Search Test Results bar.

This page also lists the top safety picks by IIHS in each segment and explains the methods behind those picks. There is a listing on this site, as well as on the NHTSA site, of all vehicles that are currently equipped with electronic stability control.

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