WHEN A MIDSIZE sedan gets broadsided by a sport utility vehicle, it's going to be bad for the passengers in the sedan. That's the latest word from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- and it underlines the growing side-impact problem. Federal regulators can't just sit around and wait for the automobile industry to make the needed safety improvements.
In the institute's study, 10 of 13 midsize models earned the lowest possible rating in a test simulating a side-impact crash by a 3,300-pound SUV traveling at 31 miles per hour. In such crashes, the likelihood is high that passengers would receive serious injury. Only the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry equipped with side airbags earned good marks in the test. A Chevrolet Malibu with a side airbag earned an acceptable rating.
Side-impact crashes continue to be a problem in this country, claiming about 9,600 lives a year. But the consequences of side impacts tend to be significantly worse when an SUV or a light truck hits a car -- not only is the heavier SUV going to carry a bigger wallop, but the higher bumper is more likely to injure a driver's vulnerable head or neck. Carmakers call this mismatched-height problem "geometric incompatibility."
The obvious solution is for every car to have a side-curtain airbag to protect the heads and necks of passengers. The chances of a driver surviving a side impact increase about 45 percent with a side airbag, according to insurance industry statistics. But here's the rub: Side airbags can be expensive (a $650 option on a Camry, for instance) and aren't available in many models. They tend to be standard only in luxury cars.
Clearly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to get more aggressive about side-impact crashes -- the government's standards aren't tough enough and the agency too often seeks voluntary agreements when government mandates are needed. Legislation pending in Congress would upgrade NHTSA standards to be more like those used by the auto insurance industry. The next step would be to make side airbags mandatory -- and hold carmakers to a firm timetable.
In the meantime, responsible buyers need to think twice before shopping for an SUV. Despite their size, they aren't safer than other vehicles (rollover accidents see to that), they inflict greater damage on cars they hit, and they have poor fuel efficiency.
This country has made a lot of progress in automobile safety over the last few decades. It would be disappointing if the federal government failed to take swift action when the side-impact problem has been so convincingly documented.