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
Even after winning the battle for air bags, institute researchers continue to hunt for refinements.
The air bag remains a sensitive subject. It is credited with reducing deaths by 24 percent during front and front-angle crashes, compared with cars equipped only with safety belts. So, researchers are reluctant to highlight flaws in such a significant safety advancement.
It's easier to understand how the air bag can cause facial bruises, cuts, burns and eye damage -- and on rare occasions maybe even death -- after seeing a demonstration.
The bag explodes from its storage compartment with a shotgun-like sound and moves out with the force of a boxer's uppercut.
Although it all happens in a split-second, most injuries occur when the occupants come in contact with the air bag while it's inflating. In most cases, they are not wearing seat belts.
"Not all air bags are made the same," says Mr. O'Neill, noting that some inflate faster than others, and the folding patterns vary. Some are tethered -- the bag anchored to its container -- and some are not.
Although testing is incomplete, he says, "The ideal air bag seems to be one that has a sophisticated folding pattern, is tethered and inflates rapidly. But it's hard to say. A tethered bag may be better than an untethered bag, but an untethered bag with a better folding pattern may be better than a tethered bag with a not-so-good fold."
Based on the institute's findings and research by other organizations, Mr. O'Neill thinks that cars in the future will have air bags that are "smarter" than today's models. Inflation characteristics will be tailored to the severity of a crash, seat-belt use and the proximity of occupants to the bags just before inflation.
New safety tests
The institute also has spotted new areas in which to boost safety -- as the head-to-head crash test of the two Cieras showed.
One dummy's right knee was damaged when the lower portion of the --board was pushed back into the driver's compartment. Its right foot was twisted sideways and forced up into an unnatural position, leaving no doubt that if a human had been behind the wheel, there would have been serious injury.
The footwell, that section beneath the --, is getting a lot of attention, says Mr. O'Neill.
"With air bags and seat belts, we're seeing a lot of accidents where there is no significant damage to the occupant from the waist up," he said, "but severe damage to the lower limbs that will leave people crippled for life."
"We still have a way to go to correct this problem," he said, noting that European automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW and Saab, are already making design changes. "U.S. carmakers are just starting to look at this."
Edward H. Utley, vice chairman of GEICO Corp., the nation's seventh-largest auto insurer, says such injuries "did not come to light until after widespread use of seat belts and air bags. Nobody's paid attention to these injuries in the past because the motorists were being killed by head and chest injuries."
Meanwhile, the struggle among insurers, government regulators and automakers continues.
One example: the institute's bumper crash tests. This year, the center tested nine popular 1993 midsize four-door cars in a 5 mph crash and concluded that even the best performed poorly.
The cars were tested under four different types of impact: front and rear into a flat barrier, front into a angled barrier, and rear into a pole. The worst performer, the Toyota Camry LE, sustained $4,418 in damage. Even the best, the Dodge Spirit, sustained $1,771 in damage.
The federal government once required bumpers to withstand a 5-mph impact with minimal damage. But that standard was changed -- to 2.5 mph -- in 1982, when the government gave in to pressure from automakers. Automakers argued that the 5 mph bumper was too heavy and hindered their efforts reduce the weights in car to boost their fuel mileage.
A big mistake
Mr. O'Neill thinks that was a big mistake.
The difference between bumpers is the difference between thousands of dollars of damage and no damage at all, he says.
"How many more reasons does the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration need before conducting the competent reassessment of federal bumper requirements that's long overdue," he asked early this year in the center's latest report on bumper damage.
So, what's the safest car on the road today?
Mr. O'Neill doesn't hesitate to offer his opinion: "All large domestic cars with dual air bags and, certainly, Mercedes, Volvo and BMW."