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Report says cars getting safer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Cars are getting safer, a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said Tuesday.

About half of 1999-2001 models tested in a 40 mph frontal crash test earned good ratings, compared with one in four for the 1995-1998 models. The institute credits automakers for incorporating crash-test performance, government requirements and consumer information tests into their designs.

"It's because more and more automakers are incorporating offset tests into the vehicle development process. The manufacturers are doing this because they know many car buyers want the best occupant crash protection they can get," said Brian O'Neill, president of the institute.


The institute tested the Dodge Stratus, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Lexus LS 430, Mercedes E and C class and Chrysler LHS 300M.

The redesigned Dodge Stratus showed the biggest improvement in the latest round of 40 mph testing. It earned an overall "good" in crashworthiness compared with the "poor" rating of its predecessor, the 1995 Cirrus. The institute credited the improved rating to good structural design.

"The occupant compartment of the old Cirrus essentially collapsed, allowing far too much intrusion," O'Neill said. "In contrast, the occupant compartment of the new Stratus held up well, with much less intrusion. As a result, the (crash) dummy's movement was controlled better, and the injury measures were generally good."

In the small car category, the 2001 Honda Civic improved and earned the institute's highest rating. It was also named "best pick" in its class. The 2001 Ford Focus will replace the previously tested Ford Escort. It improved it's rating from average to good.

The Lexus LS 400 earned the highest rating when it was tested in 1997. For model year 2001, Lexus introduced the 430. While the newly designed vehicle earned a good rating and an overall "best pick," there was one problem with the vehicle: the airbag deployed late in a test.

According to O'Neill, executives at Toyota, which makes Lexus, were not willing to have a bad mark against the company. "Toyota was searching for perfection and wanted the highest rating in every individual category, not just a good overall evaluation, so the company made a minor change in the wiring to some of the LS 430's airbag sensors and asked for another test."

Because of the adjustment, the Lexus earned "good" marks across the board.

The Mercedes E class and C class are both institute "best picks." The E class improved from average to good. The C class, which had not been previously tested, rated good overall.

The institute assigns good, acceptable, marginal or poor crashworthiness based on a vehicle's overall performance in the offset crash. Crashworthiness is how well the car protects passengers in a crash.

The institute determines vehicle crashworthiness at 40 mph, whereas the federal government tests at 35 mph. The overall evaluation is based on measurements of occupant compartment intrusion, injury measures from a dummy positioned in the driver seat and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement.

The institute's 40 mph test involves 40 percent of the vehicle's front end hitting a barrier. In the government test, the full width of the front end hits a barrier. Institute engineers believe the tests complement one another in determining a vehicle's crashworthiness.

A list of vehicles tested in the 40 mph test and the institute's list of "best picks" are on the agency's Web site.

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Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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