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Crash tests show what happens when young drivers make a common error

Crash tests show what happens when young drivers make a common error
Tristan Honeywill

The latest crash test results from the US show what happens when young drivers in small cars make a common mistake. Few cars are designed to protect against these crashes and the consequences can be life-changing. Regardless of age, the tests show nobody should have too much confidence in their ability or the car’s protection.

The USA’s IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) introduced a new “small overlap” crash test just last year. It replicates what happens if your car clips another at 40mph. This is one of the most common accidents and it’s caused by a simple driver error.

According to a recent German study this type of accident accounts for around one in every seven crashes. Most happen on bends or as cars turn off one road and join another. Drivers misjudge the corner or their approach speed and drift into the oncoming lane. It’s particularly common among young drivers who may approach corners with too little caution.

Very few of the small cars tested handled it well. Just six of the 12 were scored as either good or acceptable. The video shows how badly the Nissan does in this test:

How much protection do most cars offer?

These may be US-only models, but it is safe to assume that most cars sold in Europe and other parts of the world will not offer much protection against this type of crash. Predictably, Volvo has been designing cars to pass this test for sometime, but most other premium global models like the Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3 Series and Lexus IS do not. All were tested last year and all got poor ratings for lower leg and foot protection. The small SUVs tested so far don’t do much better.

How serious is this type of crash?

In a 2009 IIHS study of US vehicles with good ratings for crash protection, these “small overlap” crashes accounted for nearly a quarter of the serious or fatal frontal crashes. Most of the injuries that result aren’t life threatening, however.

In the less severe crashes, feet can get tangled in the pedals. The resulting foot injuries are complex and take a long time to heal. German insurance research shows that drivers are nearly twice as likely to be unable to work for three months or longer as drivers in other types of crash.

Despite this, the “small overlap” crash test will not be introduced for new European cars any time soon. Instead Euro NCAP is going to introduce tests that encourage better protection for people sat on the rear seats. Read more on this here.

Why don’t cars already protect against this?

Crazy as it may sound, most cars aren’t designed for this kind of crash. Nothing works the same as in a more conventional head-on collision. Vehicles have structures to manage the crash energy, but if the car just clips something as in the small overlap test, the impact misses them. That increases the risk of the passenger compartment collapsing. The vehicles also tend to spin or slide sideways during the collision. This can throw the driver’s head away from the protection of the front airbag and onto the dashboard.

Commenting on the crash test results, David Zuby, the IIHS’ chief research officer, said: “In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways and the dummy’s head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn’t deploy or didn’t provide enough forward coverage to make a difference.”

Find out more in the IIHS’ latest Status Report or visit their website


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