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Crash Test Suggests Lagging SUV Protections

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2017 Chevrolet Equinox SUV in white. Chevy, a division of General Motors, also makes the Suburban, Cruze, and Traverse. | Image by LIAL, Shutterstock

Small SUVs earned a negative crash test rating this year for their lack of passenger protection.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced the results of its 2022 moderate overlap front evaluation—the agency’s longest-running crash test, originally established in 1995. The results of the frontal crash tests determined that a growing gap in protection existed in smaller SUVs for occupants in both the front seats and back seats.

“The original moderate overlap test was our first evaluation and the lynchpin of the Institute’s crash testing program,” said IIHS President David Harkey.

“In the first tests, only two out of 15 small SUVs, the Ford Escape and Volvo XC40, protect the rear occupant well enough to earn a good rating,” IIHS said in its report.

IIHS maintained that smaller SUV vehicles were still safe despite failing the crash test. This crash test contradiction surfaced following an IIHS update that placed greater emphasis on the safety of backseat passengers.

The change was made following a 2019 study that showed rear-seat passenger protection failed to keep pace with that of front-seat occupants.

Some of the results from this year’s crash tests include: The Toyota RAV4 earned an acceptable rating, while the Audi Q3, Nissan Rogue, and Subaru Forester received a marginal rating. Nine SUVs received a poor performance rating, including the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-5, and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross.

“Drivers in most vehicles are nearly 50% less likely to be killed in a frontal crash today than they were 25 years ago,” said Harkey. “Our updated test is a challenge to manufacturers to bring those same benefits to the back seat.” Although, “the stellar performance of the Escape and XC40 shows it’s possible,” he said.

The study found that while safety belts restrain back-seat passengers, rear occupants are still susceptible to fatal head and neck injuries.

Passengers seated in the back were substantially less likely to be killed in a frontal crash than the driver or front-seat passenger, IIHS said in the study. The biggest safety factor for front seat passengers before 2007 was the crumpling of the front compartment. Now, however, technological advancements, such as added airbags and advanced seat belts, have made occupants in the front much safer.

With so much focus on front-seat safety, backseat protections have yet to see the same progress. Following the release of most 2007 model SUVs, the risk of a fatal injury became 46% higher for belted occupants in the rear seat than in the front, IIHS said.

“The industry has always been good about responding to tests that we have introduced,” Harkey said about adding more tech-heavy seat belts in the back. “We expect they will do so in this case, and we expect they will be able to do so quickly.”

While head and neck injuries remain common for back-seat passengers during a car crash, “In real-world crashes, chest injuries are the most common serious rear-seat injuries for adults, so that’s a key focus,” said Research Engineer Sushant Jagtap, who assisted in the development of the new test.

With the popularity and demand for SUVs in the U.S. at an all-time high and increasing each year, it will be up to auto manufacturers to design more state-of-the-art protections for the passengers in the back.

This is especially the case for small SUVs, which made up 23.4% of all 2022 vehicle sales in the U.S., according to Edmunds.com.

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