(The Car Connection) — New cars withstand crashes better than ever, yet U.S. traffic fatalities hit a 20-year high in the first half of 2022.
Such contradictory data helps explain why the IIHS has toughened its safety criteria for the automotive industry’s most stringent independent crash tests as more automakers excelled in testing.
“We’re challenging automakers to build on the safety gains they’ve already achieved,” IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement regarding the insurance-industry funded’s annual list of Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick award winners.
Last year at this time, 101 vehicles earned one of the two 2022 Top Safety Pick awards. This year, only 48 vehicles have qualified under the new criteria, meant to reflect heavier vehicles such as SUVs traveling at higher speeds and driver-assist technology that mitigates or avoids collisions with pedestrians at night.
Pedestrian fatalities spiked to record highs during the pandemic, accounting for an estimated 7,485 out of 42,915 traffic fatalities in 2021, or 17.5%. That was the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in 40 years, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association who, like the IIHS, use the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to document crash and fatality data.
Cars may be safer at withstanding crashes, but pedestrians are not, especially at night when an estimated 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur. To address and hopefully reverse that trend, the IIHS this year assesses the efficacy at nighttime of automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
To win a coveted Top Safety Pick+ award, the vehicle must earn an “Advanced” or “Superior” rating for both daytime and nighttime crash prevention tests of automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
The NHTSA’s NCAP five-star rating system currently does not evaluate driver-assist technology, making the IIHS a more comprehensive and up-to-date safety tester. Thus, agencies, automakers, and automotive outlets ranging from the National Safety Council to Consumer Reports and The Car Connection deem Top Safety Pick awards as mattering more than the NHTSA’s limited testing.
The Institute, which says it operates independently of its funding by the automotive insurance agency and is complimentary to NCAP testing, has a history of raising the safety bar as more automakers develop vehicles that meet the IIHS criteria.
“Updates to the award requirements are an essential part of the Top Safety Pick program, which is designed to continually push manufacturers toward a higher level of safety,” the IIHS said in a statement.
In 2021, the IIHS introduced a tougher side test meant to simulate a T-bone crash into the driver’s side. The test hadn’t been updated since 2003, in which time heavier crossover SUVs that ride higher than cars proliferated on roadways. The moving crash barrier increased in weight from 3,300 pounds to 4,180 pounds to reflect the average new car weight, and the strike speed increased from 31 to 37 mph to reflect higher average speeds from 20 years ago.
When the original test was introduced in 2003, most vehicles failed with a “Poor” rating but by 2021, virtually every vehicle tested had earned top “Good” ratings on the old test. When the IIHS launched the new test in 2021, the side-impact type of crash accounted for 23% of traffic fatalities.
The IIHS communicates with automakers to let them know of changes to the testing protocol, and gives them time to respond. The new side-impact test wasn’t part of TSP and TSP+ criteria until this year. The results have been mixed: most mid-size cars failed, while crossovers fared better.
Other changes for 2023 reflect the growing emphasis on effective headlights, since the majority of traffic fatalities happen at night. To earn either TSP award this year, the standard headlights must have at least an “Acceptable” rating. Last year, such headlights could be optional.
The IIHS also eliminated the roof strength and rollover crash tests because automakers had met the criteria for years.
“The federal government adopted roof strength standards similar to the IIHS requirements in 2009, and for some time now, virtually all vehicles tested have earned good ratings,” the IIHS explained. “Electronic stability control, which has been mandatory since
2012, has also dramatically reduced the rollover crashes that stronger roofs are intended to mitigate.”
The head restraint test has also been relaxed for widespread compliance, for now, as has automatic emergency braking (AEB) in preventing crashes with other cars. Most automakers have equipped 95% of their new vehicles with AEB, thanks in part to a voluntary agreement set for Sept. 2022. Late last year, a sweeping study found that vehicles equipped with AEB reduced rear-end crashes by 49% compared to vehicles without the driver-assist tech.
More changes will be coming for the 2024 Top Safety Pick awards.
For now, 48 of the 220 possible vehicles with an IIHS rating earned a 2023 TSP or TSP+ award, and more TSP winners will be announced as testing is complete. Automakers can nudge the IIHS to prioritize testing on those vehicles the brands think will qualify, and the IIHS gets to the rest later based on the previous year’s results and any changes to the individual models.
Toyota and Lexus led the pack with nine TSP+ and six TSP awards, while Honda and Acura had six TSP+ and two TSP winners. Toyota is a much larger brand with several more models than Honda, however, so it’s all relative. Every 2023 Mazda except for the MX-5 Miata earned a TSP.
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Here’s the list that will be updated throughout the year.
2023 Top Safety Pick awards by the IIHS
2023 Top Safety Pick+ awards
Subaru Solterra (built after Oct. 2022)
Tesla Model Y
Toyota Tundra (crew and extended cabs)
2023 Top Safety Pick awards
Honda Civic hatchback and sedan (excluding Type R)
Hyundai Sonata (built after Dec. 2022)
Lexus ES 350
Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan
Toyota Corolla hatchback and sedan