The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spends about $1.5 million each year testing the safety of new cars. Its research has helped bring the annual highway deaths in the United States down to around 37,000 last year — the fewest since 1961.
At the institute's Vehicle Research Center in Charlottesville, Va., researchers usually crash two cars a week. David Zuby, a vice president of the institute, says the result is a more crash-worthy car.
"In '95, half of the vehicles we tested rated 'Poor,' " Zuby says. "Today, virtually all earn a 'Good' rating."
For its tests, the center uses crash test dummies, with greasepaint marks on their heads. After a crash, technicians note where the greasepaint leaves its mark — hopefully, it's on the vehicle's air bag.
Vice President Joe Nolan says the dummies are integral to the work of the institute.
"This guy can measure the deflection in the chest being pushed in, and also the acceleration, just the brute force, of how hard you've hit him in the neck," Nolan says of a test dummy. "It's got sensors in the top, so you can measure forces wanting to rip the head off to the rear, to the left and up, so all three forces but also all three movements."
The institute has just released its latest list of top safety picks. It's a shorter list than last year because of a new test designed to determine a car's ability to withstand a rollover.
Recently at the research center, analysts conducted a side-impact crash test on a new Ford Ranger pickup. The truck was crashed into a moving deformable barrier at 31 miles per hour.
After the test, Nolan noticed the truck's side was pretty well staved in. "Looks like a lot of deformation," he said, "and that makes it a real challenge for the air bag to protect the occupant."
But according to the readout from the dummy's sensors, if there had been a person in the cab, he or she would probably be fine.
As cars have gotten safer, automakers are now looking at technology that helps drivers avoid crashes altogether; from electronics that prevent skidding and rollovers to cameras and radar that see objects drivers might hit.
Car crashes may never completely be eliminated, but evolving high-tech safety systems could come close to making it happen.