Real-World Car Safety Tests

The car safety tests that are required for every new mass-market passenger vehicle are flawed in many ways. Here is a list of the most obvious flaws (please point out any that I’ve missed):

  1. There has been no research to make accurate crash-test dummies to represent women and children, and I believe that there has been no research to make crash-test dummies to accurately represent people of racial groups that are not common in the US. Basically the medical research used to make crash test dummies was performed on male cadavers that were readily available in the US.
  2. The standard tests involve a direct collision with a centrally targeted stationary object, a direct collision with an offset stationary object, and solid objects (representing cars) hitting the vehicle from the read and the side. These simulate crashes where there is little or no attempt made to avoid the collision, they are probably really good for protecting drunk drivers. But any sane and sober driver is probably going to make some effort to avoid the collision and the resulting impact will not be at a multiple of 90 degrees. Note that when a car directly hits the side of a moving car it is quite different to hitting the side of a stationary car (which is what is tested).
  3. There are no standard tests for the probability of a vehicle rolling in the event of a crash or of what would happen to the occupants if it was to roll. Rollover crashes are among the most dangerous…
  4. The tests do not take into account the ability of the driver to avoid a crash or minimise the damage. The ability to avoid crashes is a major advantage for cars with a low center of gravity, AWD, and traction control. It’s a major problem for vehicles with a high center of gravity and with tires that are not designed for road use (IE 4WD/SUV vehicles).

But generally the crash-test results are of some use provided that you start by looking at the results from vehicles that have good safety features such as the Audi Quattro, the AWD version of the VW Passat, a Mercedes with 4MOTION, or any other vehicle with constant four wheel drive, road tires, four wheel traction control, and a low center of gravity.

The RACV (the main car owners advocacy organisation in Victoria and also a major car insurance company) [1] has published the used car safety ratings report [2]. This was produced by the Monash University Accident Research Centre and is based on the analysis of 3,000,000 crashes reported to police in Australia and New Zealand. Results are only available for cars which have been in common use on Australian and New Zealand roads for some time (so there aren’t many entries for vehicles that are less than 5 years old or for particularly expensive vehicles).

The report also includes estimates on the purchase prices of some of the safest vehicles. A vehicle that is significantly better than average can be purchased for as little as $5000!

Now if you want to buy a new vehicle then choosing the latest version of a model that has rated well on the used-car tests should be safe if the new car crash tests also report good results. It seems likely that the latest Mazda 6 or VW Passat will also rate well on the used-car tests in a few years time. It’s a pity that the report didn’t note which of the vehicles that rated well have models that have good features to avoid collisions such as EBA, ABS, AWD, and traction-control.

A friend who is active in the free software community recently had a very lucky escape from a significant crash. From his description I doubt that car safety features had much to do with him escaping without injury, I think that it was mostly luck. While his car did have a good range of safety features (and was rated well on the used-car tests), a high-speed collision that involves a truck can easily result in a car being squashed flat. I have already sent him the RACV link which he is using as part of the process to decide what new car to purchase. But I think that this information needs to be spread more widely.

I have not searched for information on such analysis of crashes being performed in other countries, please leave a comment if you know of any good research that will be useful for other people. One thing to note however is that given the global scope of car manufacturing, results from one country will have some validity in others. I expect that a VW Passat that is sold in Germany or the US will be almost identical to the Australian version.

11 comments to Real-World Car Safety Tests

  • > The car safety tests that are required for every new
    > mass-market passenger vehicle are flawed in many ways.
    > Here is a list of the most obvious flaws

    Citation needed

  • etbe

    #1 The web site of any company that manufactures crash test dummies.
    #2 The web site of any government lab that runs crash tests.
    #3 and #4 Same as #2.

  • Kurt Roeckx

    Some other thing about those crash tests is that people that are drunk ussually have less injuries than people who aren’t, probably because they do not try and brace themself. The tests basicly seem to favour the drunk persons.


  • ScottK brings a lot of the relevant data together. It’s not great html, but the data has been helpful to me in car buying decisions.

  • Xavier Cremaschi

    Some models exist for crash test dummy women and children.

    For example Volvo has a model for pregnant women :

  • tshirtman

    @Kurt Roeckx: and about being drunk and fatalities in accidents? Is the relation still in the same way?

    @etbe: I think that the fact that crash test dummies of children are scaled down of adult males models is the worst problem, the same for women is a problem too, but I don’t see the point with ‘races’, different shapes are necessary because human comes in different shape everywhere, but it’s not a matter of ‘races’.

    The rest of the post is quite interesting :)

  • etbe

    Kurt: not bracing yourself is the best strategy, not only because crash test dummies don’t brace themselves, but because of the almost impossible engineering task of making it safe to brace. If you brace yourself then all the force goes on your arms or legs, either the joints or the bones will break. But if you don’t brace yourself then you allow time for airbags etc to deploy.

    It would be good if there was an emergency button in a car that the driver could push before an accident. When your car is sliding towards a solid object with ABS/EBA fully active there isn’t much for the driver to do. Pushing a button to tell the car computer to be ready to activate all safety measures might allow some extra protection. One example would be electric seat-belt pre-tensioners.

    ScottK: That’s a good site.

    Xavier: Those child and pregnant crash test dummies were all made without tests on humans, therefore their utility is greatly reduced. The first link you cited mentions medical research on orangutangs that was abandoned due to animal welfare issues. To do some good research they need a supply of pregnant cadavers, this may be difficult to obtain. Child cadavers are easier to obtain and a research group in Germany obtained enough before stupid politicians forced them to abandon the research.

    tshirtman: It’s not only the scale of children but the fact that they have a different number of bones!

    As for racial differences, your theory is that race doesn’t matter in terms of the medical risks associated with car crashes, my theory is that it does. If they ever do some good medical research then they will discover who is right. Research with a negative outcome is still valuable, if they can prove that my non-white friends are protected as well as I am in the event of a car crash then I’ll be happy!

  • tshirtman

    @etbe: I would be more concerned for the safety of your big boned friends, or, the very slim ones, whatever their color may be. But I’m not a doctor, nor am I a car security engineer.

    In other news I prefer my arm to be broken, than my head banging something hard, I may be wrong, but I wouldn’t follow your advice not to brace myself.

  • etbe

    tshirtman: In a modern car the only hard object that you might bang your head against is the ceiling. If you avoid rolling your car (IE avoid being in a 4WD or SUV) then there are airbags to prevent your head hitting the steering wheel or side column (both of which are also reasonably well padded) and nothing else remotely solid is in range. Curtain airbags to prevent you from hitting your head against the window glass (which is fairly solid) is a common option on more expensive vehicles. So it’s a choice of having your arm broken or having the seat-belt take your weight.

    As for being slim or big boned, there are strong racial trends regarding height, weight, and bone structure. Designing the tests to cover 90% of the range of height and weight in your local population makes sense (although I suspect that the original research was not that extensive). But if the cars are then exported to a country where less than 40% of the people fall within the tested range then it’s not a good result.

  • tshirtman

    “there are strong racial trends regarding height, weight, and bone structure”

    Do you have references about this? thanks.

  • etbe

    tshirtman: You are being difficult here. A casual observation will allow you to identify the factors of height and weight. Bone structure is determined by height and weight.

    But if you really want a reference, the above page has CDC records of average child height and weight broken down by race. There would be no need for separate graphs if your claim was correct.