Insurance institute's auto research strives to prevent deaths, injuries A HEAD - ON APPROACH TO SAFETY

November 28, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Ruckersville, Va. -- As the seconds elapse, the two Oldsmobile Cieras converge, the space between them evaporating at a rate of 70 mph. They hit nearly head-on in a nightmarish crash that sends glass and chunks of metal flying in all directions.

Brian O'Neill is one of the first on the scene. He pokes his head into the driver's compartment, his eyes focusing on the distorted -- and a steering wheel bent from the impact of Larry's body. His initial assessment: The motorist "probably survived with no death-threatening injuries."

He won't know for certain for a few hours. It will take that long for biomechanical engineers -- not doctors -- to download information from electronic sensors in Larry's chest into a computer for a detailed analysis.

Mr. O'Neill is president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; Larry is a $200,000 humanoid designed to provide information on what would have happened if a real person had been behind the wheel. The crash was staged at the institute's new $8.5 million Vehicle Research Center, on 135 acres of rolling farmland just outside this central Virginia crossroads.

Through such carefully staged tests, the institute hopes to save lives, reduce injuries, improve the design of cars and cut into the $93.7 billion a year that insurers pay in accident claims. Along the way, it could influence how much you will pay for auto insurance.

The institute, a nonprofit research group funded by about 300 auto insurers, has made many contributions to auto safety, says Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. She points to research in such areas as child restraint systems, the 55-mph speed limit, auto bumpers, motorcycle helmets and drunken driving.

"But the biggest value of the test facility is that the government doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of research," says Ms. Claybrook, a former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's a good outside source that can do the substantial research needed in laying out the case for why a certain safety regulation is needed."

Laying out a case for regulation means that the institute sometimes butts heads with automakers and government regulators.

Consider the lengthy battle over air bags. The institute is reluctant to take all the credit for air bags, which now come as standard equipment on most new cars. But Charles A. Hurley, a senior vice president, says the institute was a leader in the 20-year battle with the auto industry and the federal government for the safety feature. The technology for air bags, he notes, dates to the late 1960s.

Although auto executives highly tout air bags today, there was a time when they insisted that safety wouldn't sell. Responding to a personal plea from Lee A. Iacocca, then-president of Ford Motor Co., President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 rescinded a regulation that would have put air bags in cars two years later.

Reagan took action

President Ronald Reagan took similar action in 1981.

During this head-butting period, Mr. Hurley says, the institute continued its crash-test research and told anybody who would listen that air bags would save lives. "Our purpose was to keep the scientific data available and promote it during debates of the issue," he says.

Eventually, its work paid off. While federal law today requires either air bags or automatic seat belts in all cars sold in the United States, there is strong public demand that automakers install air bags.

"Look at the sales data," Mr. Hurley says. "Cars with air bags are selling. Those without air bags are not selling."

Ted Orme, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association in Washington, confirmed the popularity of cars with air bags. Because of the strong consumer demand, he says, most manufacturers are installing dual air bags well ahead of the government's schedule.

Still, tension underlies the relationship between the institute and automakers.

Robert H. Munson, Ford Motor Co.'s executive director of the automotive safety standards office in Detroit, calls the center "a fine facility and a professional operation [that Ford] will be working closely with, when appropriate."

Mr. Hurley says the auto industry views the insurance group as a watchdog organization to be tolerated. "There have been a number of times over the past 20 years that, if they could have attacked our studies, they would have. They would probably prefer that we be less effective," he says with a laugh, "but they have respect for our scientific approach and data." And that's why the institute jealously guards its independence.

For example, the institute sought suggestions on technical matters from domestic and foreign automakers when it built its Virginia test center, which has an annual budget of about $2 million and employs 15 people, but sought no funding from them. And it does not accept the automakers' offers of donated vehicles for testing.

The air bag

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