rav4 side to side image iihs

SAFETY: That “Top Safety Pick” Crossover May Not Be As Safe As You Think

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The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety recently uncovered a dirty little secret about some of the top-selling small crossovers on the market.

Some automakers have apparently been adding in the safety systems needed to keep you safe only on the side that the crash tests are normally performed on.  For many years The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS) has performed its toughest-to-pass test, the small frontal overlap test, on just the driver’s side. This month, for grins and giggles, the Institute decided to crash test some of the highest-rated small crossovers on the passenger side instead to see what the results would be. Surprise! Most did dramatically worse on the test.

small frontal overlapp test graphic IIHSRelated: Understanding Crash Test Ratings

The scores for all of the top-selling small crossovers on the “other side” small frontal overlap test would have been enough to disqualify all but one of them from the “Tops Safety Pick” rating they so proudly proclaim in their advertising. The small frontal overlap test was added to the many that IIHS performs after a study of real-world data proved that many crashes that were fatal or which caused serious injury occurred when only a small portion of the front of the vehicle struck an immovable object, like a telephone pole or tree.

Becky Mueller, an IIHS senior research engineer and the lead author of the study, points out a sobering fact, saying,   “More than 1,600 right-front passengers died in frontal crashes in 2014.”  The image above shows the difference between the older moderate front impact and small frontal overlap tests.

IIHS small frontal passenger side testing.

The top-selling small crossover, the 2016 Toyota RAV4, which had previously aced all its crash tests, did the worst on the new test, scoring “Poor” instead of “Good.” IIHS estimates that a passenger in a vehicle which scores “Poor” is 46% more likely to die in a frontal crash than a vehicle rated “Good”

The Subaru Forester and Nissan Rogue also scored substantially worse when tested on the “other” side with a score of “Marginal.”  The IIHS estimates that a passenger in a vehicle that scores “Marginal” has a 33% higher chance of dying in a frontal crash compared to one that scores “Good.”  Only Hyundai’s 2016 Tuscon scored an equally high “Good” on the passenger side test andconventional driver’s side test.

So what happened?

rav4 side to side image iihs

The IIHS thinks that some manufacturers simply do not install equal crash protection on the passenger side. Toyota’s RAV4 was one of two vehicles that had obvious differences in appearance on the passenger side compared to the safer driver’s side.  Ms. Mueller, the Senior IIHS engineer that authored the study, says that “When structural improvements are visible only on the driver side, there are large differences in performance.”

However, some of the vehicles, such as the Subaru Forester, look the same on both sides to the naked eye. The IIHS speculates in the recent report from the study that manufacturers may not have used the same grades of steel on the non-test side, saying, “In earlier research, (Mueller) found that the most common change manufacturers make to improve vehicle structure for small overlap protection is to strengthen the occupant compartment. To do this, they might use a different type of material or add a few millimeters of thickness — changes that can’t be discerned from a visual examination. It’s likely these types of modifications were made to the Forester and CX-5, but only on the driver side.”

small frontal overlapp reinforcements - SAE

Automakers are not on their own when it comes to figuring out what it takes to improve a vehicle from “Poor” to “Good” in terms of safety in small frontal overlap crashes. The Society of Automotive Engineers did an in-depth study of simple redesigns that make the vehicles much safer. The study concluded that the added cost estimate per vehicle to score “Good” on the small frontal overlap test is just $26.88 per car*. That may not seem like much money, but in the case of the top-selling models, it is over $9 million per year.

In order to ensure that automakers were not “cheating” on other crash tests, the group also performed the older, and easier to pass, moderate frontal impact test on two vehicles on the passenger side.  Both the RAV4 and CR-V were tested, and both scored “Good.”  By all appearances, it is just the small frontal overlap collision test that has dissimilar results.

IIHS is considering adding a “Good” score on the passenger side small frontal overlap test to the 2018 requirements for automakers to earn a Top Safety Pick rating. That will mean that the company will have to buy and destroy another car of each model just to check that manufacturers are not “cheating” the test by reinforcing just one side for safety.


EDAG, Inc.  EDAG, Inc. 1875 Research Drive, Suite 200  Troy, MI 48083  Published by SAE INTERNATIONAL and presented at an NHTSA public meeting.

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John Goreham

John Goreham