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Small SUV safety: IIHS takes a closer look at back-seat passengers

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is, once again, moving the safety needle in vehicles. This time, the agency is shining a light on back-seat passengers by buckling in a small dummy during front-impact testing. Unfortunately, looking at small SUV safety, back-seat passengers generally don’t fare well.

In fact, there are five popular small SUVs that get a Poor rating for rear passenger restraints and kinematics. Then again, there are just two vehicles in the set that get overall Good crash test ratings – which may make you rethink buying a small SUV in general.

About the test

The IIHS introduced its moderate front overlap test back in 1995, and at that time most vehicles were rated poor or marginal for the front passengers. But now there is barely any crumpling of the front passenger compartment, which means fewer front passengers are fatally injured.

A recent IIHS study shows rear-seat occupant protection hasn’t kept pace with the front, and so by activating a rear dummy during a frontal crash, IIHS hopes to push automakers to address this lack.

Thus, IIHS is putting what it calls a “Hybrid III” dummy, representing a 12-year-old child or small woman, in the back seat during a 40 MPH moderate front overlap crash.

“We’re excited to launch the first frontal crash test in the U.S. to include a rear-occupant dummy,” said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Marcy Edwards, who led the development of the new evaluation. “This is a fantastic opportunity to rapidly deliver big safety benefits by adapting technologies that we already know to be effective.”

To earn a good rating, the results must show there isn’t excessive injury to the head, neck, chest, abdomen or thigh of rear-seat passengers.

During rebound, the rear passenger dummy’s head moved outside of the side curtain airbag on the Jeep Renegade and hit the C-pillar hard. The head protection is inadequate and puts the head at risk of possible contact with outside objects. (Image courtesy of IIHS)

The results

Manufacturers often don’t employ the same safety measures in the back seat that they give to the front seat – things like force limiters on seatbelts or frontal airbags. In all nine of the vehicles that receive overall poor ratings, there were high risks of injury to the head, neck and chest for the rear-seat passenger.

The test shows instances of heads slipping between the side-curtain airbag and the window following the initial impact, and there were multiple instances of the lap belt slipping from the pelvis to abdomen.

Small SUV Safety

In general, the results for small SUV safety aren’t good. Out of 15 SUVs tested, only two, the Volvo XC40 and Ford Escape, achieve an overall Good rating. One, the Toyota RAV4, gets an acceptable rating, and the other 12? Well, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable putting passengers in the back seat.

So, if you’ve got kids, take a close look at the results below, and demand better from automakers.

IIHS Small SUV Safety

A screen shot of the test results for Small SUVs, including the new rear-seat dummy. (Image screen shot from the IIHS website)

The bottom line

The IIHS does a great job shining the light on safety issues – just like it did with the midsize SUV side crash test and women’s safety. But change takes time. So, while automakers are certainly making note of these results, there likely won’t be anything done about the big issues until the next design cycle.

What we’d like to see done right now: Change the seatbelts. Better crash tensioners and belts with airbags could make an immediate difference.

In the meantime, do your research and consider your back-seat passengers before you buy any vehicle.

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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