• Oct 5th 2010 at 3:00PM
  • 15
A gasoline-powered, big-block V8 housed in a tin shack fires up, the sound of its open exhaust echoing across the desert floor. Anyone passing by might mistake the sound for a local putting the finishing touches on a demolition derby racer, but what's about to happen is a totally different kind of crash. Sitting opposite the tin shack is another, cleaner looking shed, mounted on wheels and fitted with a large air-conditioning unit. Exactly 1,000 feet of concrete separate the two small buildings. Several workers in coveralls and hard hats roll the second building, the "cool room," away, revealing a silver SUV. It's sitting sideways, covered with tape, wires and other equipment, and it's hooked up to a large tow cable. In the driver's seat, is what looks like a department store mannequin.

Another worker sprays water onto the concrete strip, as the noisy V8 revs up and pulls the tow cable taut. Gradually the SUV starts sliding sideways, its tires are on skids, until it reaches 20 miles per hour. It doesn't seem like the vehicle is going that fast, but when the truck slams into a 10-inch diameter, stationary metal pole, driver's side first, the collective gasp of the onlookers says it all.

Had this been a real accident, the SUV would be totaled and at the very least, the driver would be having a bad day.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been conducting crash tests on passenger cars for more than 30 years, but this is a new one. This new side pole test is just one of many changes in NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Rating System, which is being unveiled this week. The goal, says NHTSA is to make the safety ratings more meaningful.

While the current system has done its job by nudging automakers to build safer cars, now it's time to raise the bar a little. The more stringent tests also include more crash data dummies, including small- and medium-sized adults, to more accurately measure how different people fare accidents. NHTSA will also collect more information from those crash dummies including the likelihood of injury as measured from the chest, head, neck and legs. NHTSA will also give tested vehicles an overall safety rating, which is a combination of the frontal and side crash tests and rollover resistance.

Testing is being conducted by private companies that NHTSA contracts with, but it's the agency that dictates the parameters of the crash testing all the way down to the temperature of the vehicle, hence that moveable cool room. The idea is to keep each test consistent no matter where it's conducted, since even the slightest variation could net different results, so all tested vehicles are kept at a temperature of 70 degrees. The test we witnessed was conducted at a testing facility at Karco Engineering in Adelanto, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

For the 2011 model year, NHTSA will crash and evaluate 55 vehicles: 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, 2 vans, and 9 pickups. Each year, NHTSA rates a sample of new vehicles that are predicted to have high sales volumes, those that have been structurally redesigned, or those with improved safety equipment. The first batch of cars to be tested using the new, more rigorous criteria include volume sellers like Honda's Accord, Civic and Pliot, Nissan's Altima, Murano and Sentra, Toyota's Camry, Highlander and Prius, plus a handful of other popular vehicles.

The cars are not supplied by the manufacturers, but purchased by NHTSA from various dealerships across the country. While this uses taxpayer money, you might be surprised at just how little: The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) will cost about $12 millon dollars this year. That's roughly a third of what NBC paid Conan O'Brien to leave the Tonight Show a few months ago.

If there's a problem with the new 5-Star test it's that the 2011 results cannot be compared to the previous 5-Star system, so crosschecking safety ratings against a 2010 model simply won't work. This will certainly be confusing at first, but as time goes by and NHTSA works its way through the long list of passenger cars and light trucks, the result will be a more dynamic rating system and more empowered consumers. To further assist car buyers, NHTSA is launching a public education campaign surrounding collision avoidance systems like lane departure warning, stability control, and forward collision warning systems.

Crash tests and star ratings might not get you fired up the same way a new HTC phone does and certainly no one plans to broadside a 10-inch pole. But think of it this way: Your tax dollars are funding the 5-Star program, so you might as well reap the benefits of it. For more information on the new five-star safety system or to look up results for a specific car, visit NHTSA's Safer Car web site (www.safercar.gov), where all the crash test information can be found.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 15 Comments
      atragon
      • 8 Months Ago
      NHTSA doesn't get it. The point is to AVOID getting into an accident to begin with. That means fixing the roads and bridges, and stop putting in stupid traffic lights and rotaries. Keep traffic moving! Also, the average car buyer doesnt care so much about airbags and 5-star ratings. Car makers never tell you about the car itself, just that there are finance deals and leasing deals. Who cares? Give me a good reason to buy your car, not their car. Also, get rid of the stupid legal disclaimer; no one can read it anyway.
      Erbie's
      • 8 Months Ago
      Better yet tie them to the pole, so we can see how good of a cushion they can be for the suv.
      • 8 Months Ago
      what ticks me off about car manufacturers these days is the way the build the cars, a car today should not be totaled for running over a stop sign
      • 8 Months Ago
      First of all, PRESS1FORENGLISH,read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and think about where and who your grandparents were in the early 1900's... oh thats right, most likely immigrants or stuck up people who happened to become US citizens 10 years before that book was written and thought themselves to be REAL Americans... yeah, remember... We are all human, get used to it.
      Second of all, br3283, I TOTALLY agree with the child molestors! Or convicted murderers... I'd agree with either one!
      larry
      • 8 Months Ago
      The time you really find out if your getting your money's worth is after an accident. The person bragging they only pay $300 a year for car insurance is lucky they can get a policy that reasonable but, lets hope you are as lucky after you have an accident and the insurance coverage you have, covers all your damages and repairs your vehicle to your satisfaction. May I recommend you reconsider carrying at least $300,000 medical and liability coverage because there are a lot of people eager to file a lawsuit for damages and medical costs are not cheap now days. Lets see if you can still get a years car insurance for under $300 now !!!I doubt it. I'm skeptical of your $300 coverage per year and hope you never run into my vehicle.
        • 8 Months Ago
        @larry
        Exactly! I don't know why more people don't understand this. I don't work for an insurance company, either. You get what you pay for, and if you pay the absolute bare minimum, you get the bare minimum coverage. I'm 25, and have an expensive vehicle. I pay $140 a month, for 250k/500k/100k (Bodily Injury/property damage), 10k in medical payments, 25k basic economic loss, full APIP and 250k/500k SUM with UMBI.

        So guess what, I can absolutely decimate a brand-new BMW 755 (which I would never want to cause an accident regardless of the vehicle) and I will not be responsible for a dime. Though you could argue that if I had the bare minimum and I did the same thing, they would sure me for the money, but if I don't have it, you can't take anything from nothing.

        But the fact that I have the protection when I need it, is well worth it. The value of cars driven now-a-days makes this kind of coverage imperative (well, I maxed the coverage for my vehicle, but more than the minimum anyway), if you want to not be responsible for the cost of an accident, and if you want to be a responsible driver. But alas, I am one of the few who believe in this.

        Try getting that kind of piece of mind for $300 a year. Because let me tell you, if you hit me, and hurt me or my family, and didn't at least have the insurance to take care of me or my family, being sued by me would be the least of your worries.
        cterry877
        • 8 Months Ago
        @larry
        Why should I have insurance? You have not at fault insurance, don't you? Thanks for having great insurance and paying for it. Saves me alot of money.
      cqdeed
      • 8 Months Ago
      Too bad the picture does not match the article. It would have been more authentic rather than use a file photo. Also too bad not all the vehicles being tested were named. It might have made the story more personal to know my vehicle or my neighbors was being tested.
        Erbie's
        • 8 Months Ago
        @cqdeed
        Would not have made a difference, the article started out with new crash standards, they can't go back and say your car is unsafe now, they would have to go back to 1890 something. We bought it, it is ours now to live and of course to die with.
      • 8 Months Ago
      The real problem is the cars get better and the drivers get WORSE. With all the air-bags and safety stuff people feel invincible. WHY else would you even consider talking and texting via a cellphone or doing your nails while driving. STUPID People are the Problem-----NOT the vehicles. Most people cannot back up a vehicle down a long narrow alley using just their mirrors---let alone parallel park!
      ddan8719
      • 8 Months Ago
      Have no idea why but most serious wrecks i have come upon you have trouble even recognizing these cars as cars..shreded pieces of metal..I think the plastic facades that have replaced what used to be metal bumpers plays some part in these accidents..
      jimjoe1968
      • 8 Months Ago
      Imagine the reduction in accidents if only the cretins behind the wheel would not engage in inane activities such as: driving with a cell phone glued to your ear, texting, blowing red lights, going 80+ MPH, tailgating, blowing stop signs, driving with your headlights off at night, entering a freeway on ramp at 35MPH and then stopping right when you are about to enter the freeway, the retards in their boom cars trying to achieve an orgasm with mega bass while endangering everyone else on the road, the idiots in their muscle cars trying to be a super star by burning rubber and almost losing control of their vehicle upon takeoff at an intersection, not bothering to look over your shoulder while backing up, not knowing what a turn signal is for, leaving your high-beams on when an oncoming motorist flashes his/hers at you to dim your's, playing with your goddamn stereo/juggling CD's, eating while driving, putting on makeup, shaving, brushing teeth, changing clothes, reading, having pets on your lap while driving, etc, etc, etc.............
        Melissa
        • 8 Months Ago
        @jimjoe1968
        (Actually a reply to Chris, but it looks like you can't reply to a reply) That's not just luck, that's other people happening to not have their stupid moments at the same time you're having your stupid moments. And, yes, I consider doing anything but DRIVING while you're driving to be stupid. That's not to say I don't do stupid things while driving, but I at least recognize that they're stupid things and try to do them as little as possible. Just because you haven't had a ticket or accident doesn't mean that activities like eating and reading the paper (seriously?!) while driving aren't dangerous.
        cterry877
        • 8 Months Ago
        @jimjoe1968
        I sure wish I could be as perfect as you even though I haven't a ticket or accident in over 30 years. Same goes for my wife and two 20+ children. I eat in my car going to and from work; I use my cell phone, GPS and radar detector; I also read the paper; take my shoes off and relax. I drive over 30k miles a year through many states in all kinds of weather. 30 years of no tickets and accidents. Luck? Not hardly. Go figure.
      • 8 Months Ago
      What has become of America? People wishing death on illegal immigrants. Well aren't you lucky to have been born in a country that you don't have to escape from. It saddens me to read things like that. I'm so tired of internet trolling, hatred, bigotry and ill-will. I wish I could read so much as an article about crash safety without having to see that. Come on America, you can do better.
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