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Crash Test Scores: What Parents Need to Know

The national testing agencies don't use child-sized dummies in their tests

When shopping for a new family car, one of the first things many parents research are safety scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

NHTSA's five-star crash test scores and IIHS' crash tests and other safety information can give parents a better idea of how well a vehicle can protect their family in an accident. If you're researching child safety, however, neither agency uses child-size dummies in car crash tests. That void can make it difficult for parents to know how safe their child will be in a crash.

NHTSA tests cars for compliance and crashworthiness. Compliance tests ensure that each car follows federal regulations regarding everything from the way a door closes to rear-seat occupant protection. In order to sell a car in the U.S., each carmaker must prove their vehicle follows a long, extensive list of federal rules and requirements. Representatives from NHTSA explained to us that the agency uses the principle of "trust but verify" in its compliance tests to ensure each car performs the way the carmaker says it will.

NHTSA also performs frontal, side, rear and rollover crash tests, and rates each car's performance on a five-star scale, with five being the highest. For 2011, the agency updated its tests, adding a side-pole impact test that imitates a sideways crash into a tree, an "overall" crash test score that combines the four individual test scores and a small adult female crash dummy that records head injury. A NHTSA child safety expert predicted that available head injury information will encourage automakers to improve head protection in their cars.

Most safety scores from the IIHS relate solely to a car's overall ability to protect all occupants. This means that the car is engineered so its structure doesn't intrude into the cabin. "Structure is probably the most relevant to kids," says Chris Sherwood, a child restraint researcher at IIHS. In frontal crashes, structural intrusion is less likely to affect children because they're in the back seat, Sherwood says, but that does become an issue in side-impact tests.

That's why many carmakers offer side airbags, which help protect occupants in a rollover accident and side-impact crash.

"Side torso airbags developed for adult-size people can double as head protection for children," says Sherwood. "Plus, there's no evidence that there's any sort of risk (using rear-seat side torso airbags)." Front airbags can hurt children because the energy required to quickly inflate airbags, especially on older model vehicles, can cause injuries.

Side torso airbags aren't required by law, and even some of the most expensive vehicles don't offer them standard for all rows of seating. The Volvo XC60, for instance, comes standard with side-curtain airbags, but doesn't offer side torso airbags. On the other hand, the Chevrolet Cruze comes standard with both side curtain and side torso airbags.

NHTSA says that one of the new initiatives it's introducing are impact crash tests for child seats. These tests will determine how well car seats protect kids in side-impact crashes, and will be another tool you can use to protect your child if there is an accident. A NHTSA representative said that these new tests will be proposed in 2012, and after testing, budgetary concerns and other comments are addressed, will be put into effect.

Although IIHS and NHTSA crash tests don't include child-size test dummies, both agencies conduct separate evaluations to make sure children in booster seats will be well-protected. The IIHS' car seat tests evaluate seatbelt positions. Seatbelts should fit low across the child's hips, so that it doesn't damage the child's internal organs in an accident. Booster seats should also ensure that shoulder belts fit comfortably across the child's collarbone because a child who is uncomfortable will be more likely to move the shoulder belt behind his back and out of the way.

NHSTA tests child seats by placing a child-sized dummy into the car seat and rocketing the seat itself to 30 mph and then a sudden stop using a sled. The agency also evaluates how easy car seats are to install, including how comprehensive each seat's instructions and labels are. Their new small adult female crash test dummy also simulates the size of a child over the age of 13, who's old and large enough to be out of car seats.

For now, the IIHS only tests for "static belt fit," or how well the car seat positions the seatbelt across a child's body. But Sherwood says that Ford, the Society of Automotive Engineers and other medical research institutions have teamed up to create a more "biofidelic" crash test dummy for more realistic booster seat testing. These dummies include a force sensor located in the abdomen and include a more life-like pelvic bone, to further test the interactions between the booster seat, the seat belt and child. According to Sherwood, this new dummy will be used in laboratory testing during the next 12 months, and could be used for additional research depending on the results. Between the IIHS' and NHTSA's new dummies, car shoppers will soon have more information that will help them make informed purchases.

If you're looking for the safest vehicle for your family, consider larger cars or SUVs. They have the lowest driver death rates, according to the IIHS.

"Avoid the smallest, lightest cars," Sherwood cautions. "Small vehicles may perform well in their class, but they won't fare as well in an interaction with a larger vehicle."

Still, the IIHS has given Top Safety Pick status to 22 subcompacts and small cars from the 2011 model year, including the Ford Fiesta and Kia Forte sedan. A car must earn the highest ratings of "Good" in frontal, side, rear and rollover tests and come standard with electronic stability control in order to be rated a 2011 Top Safety Pick.

Both Sherwood and NHTSA crash test experts say the most important thing for parents to remember is to install their child seats properly, and make sure their kids are using their seatbelts correctly. Many parents forget to use the upper tethers when they install booster seats, which can cause the seat to be less effective. Plus, simply using seatbelts and child seats makes a big difference.

According to Safe Kids USA, a child safety advocacy group, "Nearly half of kids 14 and under who died in crashes were completely unrestrained," and proper child seat use can reduce the risk of death as much as 71 percent. NHTSA child safety experts also remind parents to set a good example. If a parent buckles, their child will be far more likely to properly buckle up.

Parents looking for a new car have a lot to consider. Although NHTSA and IIHS currently don't use child-size crash test dummies, they still offer a wealth of resources and information to make the decision a little easier. Picking a larger car with side airbags, properly installing top-rated child seats and making sure kids wear their seatbelts correctly can go a long way toward keeping your family safe and sound.

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