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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Behind the scenes: a crash-test exclusive

BelAirTwisted metal. Shattered glass. Blown tires. You might think I’m wandering through a junkyard, but that’s not the case. I’m talking about the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) Vehicle Research Center, which I had the opportunity to visit recently.

This state-of-the-art facility, nestled among the farms of central Virginia’s idyllic countryside, is visited by engineers and journalists from all over the world to observe crash tests and learn more about the vast world of auto safety.

“They sure don’t build them like they used to…”

slingshotI’ve heard my grandparents and my parents say this more times than I’d care to count. With cars, this statement is definitely true – because now they’re built way better. Just look at what happened to the 1959 Chevy Bel Air that was crashed into another car head-on at 40 mph. It’s a grisly sight; the whole occupant compartment collapsed around the crash dummy. A human driver would have been killed or, at the very least, would have sustained severe, life-altering injuries. In a modern vehicle, the passenger compartment would not have crumpled this way, and a driver’s injuries would have been far less severe.

The highlight of my visit was observing a live crash test. I witnessed a small-overlap crash test, which is supposed to simulate a car striking the corner of another car or a fixed object like a telephone pole. The engineering know-how needed to pull off this test is fascinating. The car gets hooked up to a hydraulic slingshot mechanism and, after four minutes of charging, the test commences. In just a few short seconds, everything ends with a BANG … literally. Yeah; that’s not going to buff out.

Mazda6While the collision facility might be the main attraction, the Vehicle Research Center does much more than just crash cars. It also looks at the level of protection provided by child booster seats and regular passenger car seats, tests the overall strength of vehicle roofs, and has a separate outdoor track to test brakes and other new car safety technology.

And IIHS’ findings aren’t taken lightly – manufacturers continue to make improvements based on them, bringing even safer cars to you and me.



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