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Car Safety Group Is Making a Big Impact

June 06, 2005|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

RUCKERSVILLE, Va. — As Volkswagen prepared to launch its redesigned 2005 Jetta sedan, the automaker asked the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to run two of the cars through some tough crash tests.

To get the tests early, Volkswagen footed the bill -- about $60,000, including the two cars sacrificed at the institute's test center here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. VW wanted to include the crash tests in new ads it is launching this month.

The Jetta got top marks, as VW officials knew it would. Indeed, the sedan was engineered with the institute's front- and side-impact crash tests in mind.

"Nobody wants to see their car do poorly" in an institute test, said VW spokesman Tony Fouladpour.

The institute is determined, many auto executives say, to embarrass the industry into improving the safety of its cars and trucks. The chief weapons of the institute, a nonprofit organization funded by insurers, are its reputation for solid scientific research and its graphic crash tests.

The tests have been a staple on "Dateline NBC" Sunday night broadcasts since 1996, and the videotapes have given millions of Americans a good idea of what can happen when a poorly designed vehicle is hit, or crashes, at even moderate speeds. Other media outlets also regularly publicize the institute's research findings, test results and recommendations.

"We have to pay attention to their tests, because consumers do," said Rich Gilligan, president of Mitsubishi Motors North America.

The man behind the wheel at the institute is Brian O'Neill, a blunt, British-born mathematician who has been its president since 1985. Federal rule-making is "a miserably slow process in promoting safety advances," said O'Neill, who revels in the institute's ability to force change on an often reluctant auto industry.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, is the official government rule maker. Auto companies must follow the federal agency's orders, but it can take years for the politically sensitive agency to turn a proposal into a legal requirement. Other safety advocates -- such as Consumer Reports magazine and Public Citizen and Center for Auto Safety, lobbying groups founded by safety crusader Ralph Nader -- also have a significant voice in the nation's automotive safety agenda.

But many believe the institute has trumped them all with its carefully crafted publicity campaigns.

This year the institute has a $13-million budget funded by auto insurance companies. When automakers request special tests, as VW did with the Jetta, the institute requires them to pay the costs. Otherwise, the institute buys the cars it crashes.

O'Neill has budgeted almost $2 million for 70 cars and trucks for crash tests this year in the institute's ongoing campaign to praise automakers that improve their vehicles and shame those that don't.

The test results have influenced many design changes.

For instance, the Mitsubishi Galant sedan failed the institute's frontal crash test in 1995 when the passenger compartment collapsed. The test dummy's head and left shoulder hit the window frame, and the dummy's left foot and lower leg became twisted and deformed.

A chastened Mitsubishi engineering staff went back to the drawing board and the new Galant, which debuted in 2004, passed the next institute test with flying colors.

"Those are the stories we like to be able to tell," O'Neill said.

But Mitsubishi's small SUV, the Outlander, failed the institute's tough side-impact crash test last year. Mitsubishi's Gilligan said the company was working to ensure that the next model would pass when it hit the market in a few years.

Although the institute had been doing crash tests for years, its influence rose after O'Neill struck the deal that gave "Dateline NBC" first broadcast rights for the tests.

Scenes of buckling sheet metal, flying glass and crumpled test dummies, limbs bent at grotesque angles and heads dented from impact with window frames and side pillars, "never fails to get a gasp from an audience," O'Neill said.

"When IIHS tests end up on 'Dateline,' it adds a dimension [of pressure] we don't have with NHTSA," said Chris Tinto, Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety representative in Washington. The institute's tactics "drive change faster than might otherwise happen," General Motors Corp. vehicle safety director Bob Lange acknowledged.

The institute is credited with a leadership role in campaigns for mandatory air bags, seat belt laws, graduated driver's licenses for teens, the use of daytime headlights in passenger vehicles, and rollover prevention standards being considered by the highway safety agency. The institute's frontal crash tests also helped lead to the development of better-built automotive passenger compartments.

And the institute's new side-impact test -- the first to examine the risk of head injuries when a car is struck from the side by an SUV -- is applying pressure on automakers to add side-curtain air bags to improve their test scores.

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