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More and Different Crash Tests Coming

WASHINGTON AP reported that with an increasing number of SUVs and pickup trucks sharing the road with cars, the insurance industry is developing new tests to rate how automobiles hold up when broadsided by larger vehicles.

The tests being developed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety use a crash barrier a foot higher than the government's side impact crash tests, which were designed to represent a car slamming into the side of another vehicle.

``The vehicle mix is very different than it was 30 years ago,'' said Russ Rader, spokesman for the institute. ``We have many more SUVs and pickups hitting cars in side impacts, and the government doesn't test for that kind of crash.''

The institute's tests are so tough that no cars are passing them. The institute has not released the initial test results publicly, but recently showed them to automakers in hopes they will improve vehicle designs.

Charlie Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said he can't say how individual automakers are responding to the institute's early results, but ``there are probably plans to do whatever companies can do to make their vehicles safer.''

Rader said the institute hopes to begin rating vehicles with a side impact test by the end of the year. The institute also hopes to begin another new test in the coming months that will evaluate how well head restraints protect against whiplash.

The institute rates head restraints by measuring how high and close they are to a motorist's head. In the crash test under development, a seat would be mounted on a ``sled,'' or a platform that runs on rails, and tested as if it were in a rear-end collision.

Since 1995, the institute has tested vehicles by running the driver's side front end into a barrier at 40 mph. It rates vehicles as ``good,'' ``acceptable,'' ``marginal'' or ``poor'' based on injury measurements on crash dummies and how well the occupant compartment held up.

Vehicle ratings have been steadily improving since the institute started the tests. In a set of nine 2002 model midsize cars released Tuesday, every car earned a good rating.

``If all vehicles performed like these midsize cars did, we could see a point where we would scale back the offset crash test,'' Rader said.

The institute would then focus on the side impact tests, which will be aimed at encouraging automakers to install side curtain air bags in vehicles. Side air bags come standard in several higher-end vehicles, but are an expensive option in most lower-end models.

``A number of automakers are already offering side curtain air bags, and as customers demand more of these, the more you will see,'' Territo said.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should have begun testing for accidents involving larger vehicles years ago.

``This is the case where the government made a mistake, and because of that mistake, vehicles don't have adequate side impact protection,'' he said.

NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said the agency uses computer modeling and tests to determine what happens when different size vehicles crash into each other and how standards can be improved to prevent deaths and injuries.

NHTSA will monitor the Insurance Institute's new tests, Hurd said. ``In general, we say the more information on crash testing, the better.''

The cars that received the good rating on Tuesday were the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Acura TL, Hyundai XG300/XG350, Lexus ES 300 and IS 300, Saab 9-5, Volvo S60, and Jaguar X-Type. The two Lexus models and the TL, Camry, and 9-5 also earned a ``best pick'' designation