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Highway Safety and Crash TestingNotes From the Road

Highway Safety and Crash Testing Organizations
By Cathy Nikkel /

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 get consumers information about the safest cars to drive and safe driver strategies to stem the growing accident statistics.

Early Testing
Automakers began researching how to make cars safer back 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 scientists with more zeal than common sense also strapped themselves into these devices). The animal/human testing led to safety steps including the introduction of a collapsible steering column after over a million drivers died when they were impaled on rigid steering wheels. The collapsible steering column cut death-by-steering wheel by 50 percent.

Alarmed by growing highway fatalities in the '60s, Congress instituted the National Highway Safety Bureau in 1966 to focus on highway safety. The name was changed in 1970 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency is mandated to issue federal safety standards and regulations with which automakers and suppliers must comply. The agency's first standard concerning seatbelt assemblies was issued in 1967. Such federal standards set minimum 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, promoting the use of safety devices such as seatbelts, 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 GM.

In 1969, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), supported by insurance companies, was formed 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 tests) and later whacking them on the side, and from behind, with sleds to collect further crash test data. A second arm of the Institute is the Highway Loss Data Institute that 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.

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