Behind the scenes: IIHS shows CBS 17 the science behind car crash testing

RUCKERSVILLE, Va. (WNCN) - The problem with cars is that they crash — and if the crash is severe enough, people die.

The National Safety Council estimates car crashes on U.S. roads took 40,000 lives last year.

A number of organizations are working to make cars safer including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia went behind the scenes at the institute to see how it conducts its safety tests.

We will never stop crashes completely, but new technology in cars is making it easier to avoid some wrecks and keep you from being injured or killed during them.

On the institute’s test track, engineer Steve Griffin is charged with testing cars with an auto-braking system that includes radar and camera systems — so the vehicle can identify, warn and prevent a collision without a driver's intervention.

“These sensors identify potential obstacles in front of us,” said Griffin. "If the driver fails to take action after a warning, the car will brake itself."

To make sure they’re accurate, tests like that need to be duplicated from car to car and manufacturer to manufacturer.

To keep their active safety tests as controlled as possible, the institute built a giant translucent dome over a five-acre portion of its test track that allows it to continue to repeat the tests over and over, no matter what the outside conditions are.

Nestled on a secluded piece of land in Ruckersville, Virginia, the institute has 10 more acres of outside test tracks as well as several labs filled with state-of-the-art testing gear.

“We buy all our vehicles at local dealerships,” said senior research engineer Matt Brumbelow. “We want the exact same thing any customer would get before we test it.”

The crash tests require precise data and much of that comes from specially designed high-tech crash dummies.

There are several types of crash dummies at the institute, specifically designed for different types of crashes which you might be involved in like head-on collisions, or side-impact crashes.

Positioning of the dummies is critical inside the passenger cabin of every car tested, requiring precise measurements before the test begins.

They even cover the heads of the dummies with various colored makeups with one color for the forehead, another for the side of the head, etc.

“We paint the dummies because we need to see where the airbag will impact the dummy or the door — or both," explained engineering tech Dave Padgett.

After the crash test, the data obtained by the dummies is analyzed and the vehicle is brought to an area where it can be documented and examined to see what worked and what failed.

Mike Ciccone, the senior director of crash-worthiness evaluation says side-impact tests by the institute have forced automakers to make much needed safety improvements, which keep passengers more protected.

There was time, back in the 70s when Detroit auto executives derided auto safety saying, “safety doesn't sell.” That is no longer the case. The demand for safety is part of what drives auto sales.

“Safety definitely sells now,” says Brumbelow. “You can’t hope to bring a vehicle to the U.S. market that’s unsafe.”

And as cars get more sophisticated, so do the crash tests conducted at the institute, which is always looking for ways to update its procedures.

As we move closer and closer to self-driving automobiles, tests like those conducted at the IIHS will insure that the new technology is reliable and safe.

More Stories

North Carolina News Headlines

Latest News

Video Center