Lawyers in our firm have handled a number of side impact cases that involved the issue of “crashworthiness.” All of the cases involved either death or severe disabling injuries. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), about one third of vehicular deaths occur in side impacts. Providing protection for vehicle occupants in side impact collisions presents a challenge to vehicle engineers. That’s because compared with frontal impacts, there is a relatively shallow crumple zone for deformation between the occupants and the closest vehicle side-structure.
A stiff side and roof structure combine to protect the occupant from injury by maintaining survival space, and dissipating the force of the collision away from the occupant. Safety cage designs, such as those used by Mercedes, Volvo, and Subaru for decades, are the forefront of side impact occupant protection. In addition to energy absorbing side structures, the side impact airbag has proven to be one of the most effective methods of improving vehicle crashworthiness in side impact collisions.
Widespread implementation of side impact airbags began in the 1990s and was not limited exclusively to luxury manufacturers. More than 95% of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2012 were equipped with side impact airbags as standard equipment. Side impact test procedures and performance targets have been dictated by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 214 (FMVSS 214) beginning in 1973. Starting in 1994, dynamic testing with a Moving Deformable Barrier (MDB) was phased into fleet certification requirements. Since its inception, the ability of the MDB to relate to real-world collisions has been subject to debate due to its “bumper” profile height of 13 to 21 inches. That is several inches lower than a typical truck or SUV bumper. FMVSS 214 was changed in 2009 to include:
• An oblique angle pole impact;
• New Anthropomorphic Test Devices (ATD or crash test dummies) with upgraded bio-fidelity in side impacts; and
• New injury metrics. The new FMVSS 214 is being phased into the fleet certification requirements, with full implementation in the 2015 model year.
A manufacturer can also test its vehicle using the same setup, but at a higher MDB velocity (62 kph versus 54 kph) to attain a star rating under the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). These star ratings are used to help customers compare the crashworthiness of different vehicles.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a non-profit organization that operates independently of the automobile manufacturers and the federal government. In response to its own research, the Institute devised a side impact test and ratings criteria and began using it in the evaluation of vehicles in 2003. The IIHS test regimen differs from the FMVSS 214 in the test speed, impact angle, and MDB design.
The IIHS MDB design was modeled to simulate a light truck or SUV. The “bumper” profile is 4 inches higher off the ground, the “face” of the MDB is 12 inches taller, the MDB replaceable “face” is stiffer, and the MDB weighs an additional 300 pounds as compared to the NHTSA MDB used in certification testing.
The IIHS rates each vehicle’s performance in its side impact testing based on injury criteria to the ATD and the performance of the vehicle’s structure as measured by the intrusion profile. If a vehicle has optional side airbags, the IIHS will test a vehicle without the side airbags, testing the same vehicle with side airbags if the manufacturer petitions it to, and reimburses the IIHS for the purchase price of the vehicle. If you would like to have more information on this subject, contact Greg Allen, who has handled more crashworthiness cases than any lawyer in the firm, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com.
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