Wednesday, 30 June 2004 10:00

CIC participants observe IIHS crash tests

Written by Autobody News staff
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Red lights started to flash, a buzzer started to intermittently go off and the countdown had really begun..... 

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Those who stayed an extra day after the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) had an unprecedented experience. June 11, 2004, was designated CIC day at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Vehicle Research Center (VRC) in Ruckersville, Virginia. Over 100 CIC attendees traveled two hours from the host hotel in Alexandria to Ruckersville. This very sophisticated, polished research center is nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.

For most of the CIC participants this was the first "crash test" experience of their industry careers. There was an electric sense of anticipation as this group filed into the hallowed halls of collision history. Senior Vice-President of the Highway Loss Data Institute Kim Hazelbaker welcomed the group. For many industry professionals walking through those doors, they had found the holy grail.

The first home of the Institute was the original Watergate Building in downtown Washington D.C. "Not the best neighborhood for crash tests," asserted Hazelbaker. Currently the IIHS VRC now sits on 135 acres that cost $8.5 million. After moving to the Virginia countryside, the VRC started crash testing publicly in 1995.

"The original goal of the Institute was to save lives," stated Matthew Moore, vehicle information specialist at the VRC. This goal has been largely realized by the Institute finding out what works and what doesn't work to reduce deaths and injuries in collisions."


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The Dummy Calibration Lab at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This is where the crash test dummies are calibrated and then positioned in vehicles to mimic the movement of humans.CIC attendees gather around crashed cars in the Display Hall at the Vehicle Research Center.


First stop - the lobby

The lobby decor is - what else - crashed cars. The two Chrysler LeBarons involved in the famous 1990 first collision of successfully deployed airbags grace the lobby carpet like priceless pieces of art.

Rod Enlow from Renlow Consulting, and recently retired from USAA, offered a piece of shared history, reflecting that "the drivers were both insured by USAA, and both drivers walked away." And ironically, this accident happened just a few miles from the VRC site, years before IIHS moved to Ruckersville.

Hazelbaker, whose career started as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, represents the statistical side of IIHS. In addition to crash testing, IIHS gathers claims data from every insurance company. "The claims data on all makes and models from the insurance industry, together with the crash test results, affords us real world figures," he stated.

Moving into the Display Hall, Hazelbaker continued,"We have a $1million annual budget to buy good cars and wreck them." Cars are purchased off dealer lots to ensure that tests are being made on the same vehicles that consumers purchase. There is an open-door policy at IIHS; auto manufacturers are welcome to observe tests at the facility. The day CIC visited, the test vehicle was a 2005 Subaru Legacy and the automaker was well represented.



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Standing next to the crashed 2005 Subaru Legacy are left to right, NHTSA Compliance Manager/ Government Affairs of Subaru of America Gerald A. Plante; Director, Subaru of America Don Bearden; and General Manager of Quality Assurance Minoru Otakem, Subaru Tokyo, Japan.CIC attendees looking first hand at the crash test of the 2005 Subaru Legacy at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Vehicle Research Center.


Display Hall informs visitors

The VRC Display Hall is just that -a well-lit, approximately 10,000 sq. ft. area dedicated to informing visitors about vehicle safety. The wrecked cars are lined up against the wall as if they are next in line for the repair process. But these are permanent display fixtures, stripped down to reveal the underlying structures after they have been crashed. These displays inform visitors about the elements of vehicle safety, such as crush zones and safety cages.

The Crash Simulation Sled

One side of the Display Hall is dedicated to the Crash Simulation Sled, which unfortunately was not in operation the day CIC visited. Lined against the wall were many car seats and child safety seats - components for testing. The Crash Simulation Sled runs on fixed rails and is launched from a cannon. Dummies, hooked to instrument panels, are positioned in or on the components being tested. The sled system can recreate the decelerations that occur inside a passenger vehicle occupant compartment during the 100 or so milliseconds of a crash

The sled is used when crash forces are sufficient to evaluate a component (i.e., seat) since it is much faster and less expensive than conducting full vehicle tests. IIHS is doing a lot of work on seat design to help alleviate the multitude of soft tissue injuries from collisions. "There is a correlation between seat design and soft tissue injury," offered Moore.

Dummy Calibration Lab

Across the hall from the Crash Simulation Sled is the Dummy Calibration Lab. Looking into the lab through large picture windows brought the IIHS message to a sharp reality. The complete family of test dummies dressed in shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes sitting there waiting to be crashed had a sobering effect on attendees.
 VRC has two full-time employees who calibrate and recondition the dummies after each crash. Each dummy includes 25-40 sensors to record the forces on various parts of the body. There is a whole family of Hybrid III dummies for frontal testing, with BioSid and Sid-II dummies used for side- impact testing.
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Chuck Sulkala, executive director of the National Auto Body Council, and a Massachussetts shop owner are discussing the crashed 2004 red Jaguar at the Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville, Virginia.
A specific dummy was designed with a complex spinal column, the BioRID, to be used for rear testing. Before the test, the dummies are painted with grease paint in four different quadrants to isolate the point of impact. One can see the colors showing the point of impact on the displayed vehicles.

At last...the Crash Hall

Moving to the end of the Display Hall, the group milled around a closed overhead garage door. The windows in the door were taped shut, except for one very small opening, through which could be seen the Crash Hall. Dateline NBC was filming this test, so final preparations were being made before CIC attendees could enter.

The 21,600 sq. ft. Crash Hall looked like a movie set - gleaming floors, a lighting system producing 750,000 watts of illumination, monitors on the walls counting the seconds to the crash and posting statistics as they happen. A newspaper reporter called this "a cross between a Hollywood sound stage and a NASA clean room."

The test we observed was a left-side impact test on a 2005 Subaru Legacy. Two female dummies will be in the car - one at the steering wheel and the other in the left rear. CIC attendees entered the room with a sense of responsibility and awe. Watching the TV crews setting up, the Institute technicians wiring the car and the dummies looking like passengers on a Sunday drive brought a new dimension of awareness to many CIC attendees.

The importance and seriousness of this event was palpable in the air. The visitors had access to every step in this process. As the car was being wired and set up for the crash, someone was wiping all the fingerprints and dust off the car - as if it were being polished up for its screen test.


Five, four, three, two, one - crash!

As the monitor read 4:09, four minutes and nine seconds until the crash, everyone quietly filed upstairs to the viewing balcony - located over 50 feet from the crash site and about twenty feet in the air. The balcony was filled with spectators this day.

Standing at the middle of the viewing balcony watching with anxious anticipation was Minoru Otake, general manager, Quality Assurance Department, Subaru Quality Assurance Division, Toyko, Japan. Subaru's and Otake's concern about test results was evident.

Finally, red lights began to flash, a buzzer started to intermittently go off and the countdown had really begun. Behind the viewing balcony a large metal door opened up and the group could see and hear the 3,800-pound barrier starting its 600-foot run. This barrier was going to hit the 2005 Subaru Legacy at 31 mph - the equivalent striking level of an F150 pickup.

As the barrier traveled under the balcony it was hard not to cringe knowing the scene everyone was about to experience. Crash, bang!! There is nothing like the sound of an automobile accident. And that is what it sounded like, and that is what the CIC attendees saw. The car skidded approximately 25 feet, the dummies were restrained, yet one could see the head and arm movement through the windsheild. It was an unsettling view for some.

Subaru personnel observe

Subaru was well represented at this test. In addition to Otake, NHTSA Compliance Manager/Government Affairs of Subaru of America Gerald A. Plante and Director, Subaru of America, Don Bearden were observing.

After the test, Otake flew down the stairs to speak with the test engineers. Bearden and Plante graciously answered questions and spoke of their commitment to safety. Bearden asserted that "safety is Subaru's primary priority. We are including safety protection in our cars even before it is required."

In conversation, Plante brought up the fact that this was only a 31-mph collision. "Accident victims perceive that the speed is much faster than it truly is," he reflected.

Over lunch, in the IIHS dining hall, appetizingly adorned with full living color crash pictures, industry professionals agreed with Plante. Accident victims often come into the shop saying, "I was hit by a car going 80 mph." Seeing a 31-mph crash test, brought the mph quotient into an unprecedented reality for many repairers. If that customer had been hit at 80 mph, the outcome would have been much different.

Test results - "needs improvement"

The results of the tests we observed were received from IIHS on Monday, June 21. "The preliminary indications are that the test was marginal, at best,"explained Hazelbaker. "This is not an unusual rating for side impact tests. The head protection worked well - this test showed that the car needs more rigid structure in the side."

When asked what the physical damage to the passengers could be, he replied "chest injuries and broken ribs, possibly." He went on to share the successes IIHS and the manufacturers have experienced. "We have been spectacularly successful in frontal testing," he clearly stated. "We have been doing extensive work with the manufacturers in designing the side impact tests, and expect the same great results in the future."

Value of IIHS

CIC attendee, Farzam Afshar, CEO of VeriFacts Automotive, Newport Beach, California, relates to the importance of IIHS. "VeriFacts business is based on safe and quality repairs. Understanding and actually seeing how vehicles crush and collapse and protect passengers in collisions is the first step in understanding how to accurately diagnose, damage and repair vehicles," he explained.

Shop owner Jerry Burns, Automotive Impressions, Rio Rancho, New Mexico was similarly impressed. "They do a great job of simulating an actual crash," he stated. "I think that the relationship between the Institute and the manufacturers is very important," he continued. "In fact, this was the second crash test for this car. The results of the first one weren't good enough for Subaru, so they did some redesign work and paid the Institute to crash it again.

"I like the involvement of the manufacturers, this type of thing would never have happened without the commitment of the automakers and the Institute," declared Burns.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent, non-profit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses - deaths, injuries and property damage - from crashes on the nation's highways.

Janet Chaney has served in many facets of the collision repair industry. She is now looking after the best interests of her clients from Cave Creek, Arizona. Her email address is janet_chaney@earthlink.net.