How crash testing works

There are two forms of safety crash testing that we hear about in the media and see the results of on television. The first one, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is government-sponsored and conducted. In their crash criteria, they only are concerned with a frontal crash. That is the vehicle is crashed head-on into a fixed barrier at a speed of exactly 35 miles per hour.

The car chosen for the test is a showroom model picked at random from the production line. It is then fitted with the very expensive anthropomorphic dummies that are fitted with all kinds of sensors to record the effect of the crash. The car is hooked on to a device on the floor of the test lab like a catapult on an aircraft carrier that will accelerate the car to the desired speed and disconnect the moment just before impact. The car then smashes head-on at 35 miles per hour into the fixed barrier.

The car has attached to its outer bodywork targets that are placed at specific measurements. After the crash the engineers can then measure from point to point and compare the measurements with the before the crash readings. At the same time there are slow-motion video or movie cameras recording the event so that the engineers after the event can see the effect of the crash. After all the evidence is collected and analyzed a determination I made as too how well the structure of the car protected the occupants as compared with other cars.

While it is true that not many crashes areas controlled and precisely head-on into a fixed object when there was no side motion, off-angle hit, skidding, the results only offer apples to apple comparison between car makes and models. The one variable that can’t be accounted for is that the dummies are all the same size and shape and that differences in the human size and weight cannot be factored in.

The second testing body is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit, nongovernment group entirely financed by the insurance industry. Their testing is a bit more stringent. The speed for the test is 40 miles per hour rather than 35. And the frontal crash is a 40% offset. Rather than the entire front of the car taking and absorbing the crash as in the federal test only one corner takes the impact. The insurance Institute also crashed a sled into the side of the car at a 90-degree angle and the other side of the car receives a 45-degree hit. Not all at the same time.

Each of the agencies then uses its own formula to determine the extent of damage to the occupants and then issue its own crashworthy rating. Critics argue that the tests have little relevance to real-world crashes as the tests occur in a laboratory environment. In the real world the elements make the cars do strange things at times. However it is a method of determining differences between the structure of car makers and how they stand up the stress of a crash, even under laboratory conditions.

Each of the agencies

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