Decades of Research in Central Virginia Pushes Industry to Make Safer Vehicles | Community Idea Stations


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Decades of Research in Central Virginia Pushes Industry to Make Safer Vehicles

When buying a car, people across the country often turn to safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The research and testing that leads to those ratings happens in Central Virginia, at a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility near the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the first of a two-part series, WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


In a brightly lit display hall, more than a dozen sedans, trucks and SUVs are lined up. Front ends are crushed, windshields shattered, airbags deployed.

Marshie Agee: We started our first high speed crash test program in 1995…

Leading a tour, Marshie Agee said they sent a vehicle at 40 miles per hour into a barrier to test how the front driver’s side would hold up.

Marshie Agee:  With only 40% of the front end of the vehicle absorbing the crash energy, especially in the early years, a lot of occupant compartments were not up to the task and they collapsed …

And when the front of a vehicle collapses, it can cause “intrusion” into the occupant compartment and that can result in death or serious injury. At the time, about half of the vehicles in this test received a “marginal” or “poor” rating. By 2013, every vehicle tested got a “good” rating. But there are still too many deaths - more than 30,000 a year. So the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety continues to look at what’s called “crashworthiness,” using six different high speed tests.

Becky Mueller: Our latest crash test the passenger side small overlap test is actually one that developed from some of the research that I started.

Becky Mueller is a senior research engineer. She says when they developed the test for the driver’s side, they discovered manufacturers weren’t putting the same improvements into the passenger side.

Mueller: Originally we thought it was a pretty small problem. And we ran some research tests and found that more than half of the vehicles that we tested in that first group were not providing the same protection for drivers and passengers and that's something that we wanted to promote and improve in vehicles so it became a new test.

The group on the tour gets to see this test inside the 22,000-square-foot crash hall - and from a safe distance, on an observation deck. That’s where I meet Michael Ciccone, he joined the Institute in 1979.

Michael Ciccone: So I've been here 38 plus years now.

Ciccone is director of crashworthiness evaluations; he chooses the vehicles, supervises the tests and writes up the ratings. Today’s test examines what happens when about 25% of the car’s outer passenger side hits a barrier.

Ciccone: This simulates a car going off the road hitting a telephone pole or a tree or another vehicle of the same weight.

We can’t disclose the make and model of the vehicle yet - the Institute is still working on their latest ratings. But Ciccone has a prediction.

Ciccone: This vehicle being a new design we would expect to do well in both already has done well in the driver small overlap test and we expected to do similarly in the passenger side small overlap test, but we don't know for sure, we will see.

Preparation takes days but the test itself is quick - and a warning, you’re about the hear the sound of the vehicle crashing

Test Announcer: Charging is complete, test will commence in three seconds… (crash sound)

A crew enters the crash area to sweep up debris, and Ciccone takes his clipboard down to the inspect the vehicle.

Ciccone: Structurally, it looks pretty good because the occupant compartment doesn’t show much deformation, we just have a minor kink on the A pillar and the door is actually in pretty good shape here.

We head to the back of the vehicle where sensors and cameras have recorded what happened inside. A technician connects a laptop so Ciccone can see how the crash test dummies responded.

Ciccone: Looks good, looks good.

While motor vehicle fatalities decreased between 1980 and 2010, In the last few years, numbers are going up again, including for groups like pedestrians and motorcyclists. The Institute’s Becky Mueller says they’re researching “crash avoidance” technology, like automatic braking and blind spot detection.

Mueller: We aren't going to be able to get down to zero deaths on the roadways without doing both aspects, in some way: warning people, being a second set of eyes for people, trying to prevent crashes from happening, but then protecting people when they are in a crash.

In part two of our series, we’ll look at some of these technologies and the role of more traditional safety features like seat belts and headlights. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.