WASHINGTON -- The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is using its powerful megaphone to send a message to automakers: Don't slack off on passenger-side safety.
A fresh round of crash-test results released last week came with an explicit warning that without sufficient progress, ratings for passenger-side crashworthiness could become part of the insurer-funded group's Top Safety Pick awards criteria, along with driver-side ratings that have already prompted many automakers to re-engineer their vehicles.
The tests detailed last week, part of a yearlong study first reported by Automotive News, found that six of seven small crossovers subjected to the group's small-overlap crash on the passenger side fared worse than they did on the driver side, sometimes much worse.
The disparity was to be expected: IIHS has encouraged automakers to improve their driver-side protections first, if it meant they could cover more vehicles quickly, before moving on to the passenger side, and many had done just that.
But now, IIHS is nudging automakers to get to that next step. The group says it plans to review automakers' near-term engineering agendas for upgrades designed to close the gap between driver- and passenger-side protections. If automakers are moving too slowly, an IIHS spokesman said, the group will seek to force the issue by adding the passenger-side small-overlap crash test to the criteria for its Top Safety Pick awards, a spokesman said. The announcement illustrates IIHS' outsize influence on vehicle engineering, influence that stems from its unusual position as a de facto standard setter for the industry and belies its lack of regulatory authority.
While National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules establish the floor for safety, IIHS' ratings continually raise the ceiling. The industry's cutthroat competition for marketing advantage gives IIHS leverage to extract more and more safety advances from automakers, just as it did with electronic stability control, automatic emergency braking and improvements to roof strength.
IIHS estimates that 24 percent of the 11,104 frontal crash fatalities in 2014 involved a small-overlap crash, in which the corner of a vehicle's front end strikes another vehicle, utility pole or tree.
When the small-overlap test was first added to IIHS' Top Safety Pick program in 2012, fewer than 10 of the 50 models tested earned the top rating of "good." Since then, IIHS says, 13 automakers have made structural changes to 97 vehicles, and nearly 75 percent of them earned the group's top rating in the test afterward.
But IIHS engineers last year observed that some automakers appeared to be making those structural changes only on the driver side -- that is, the side that got tested. To examine the scope of the practice, IIHS began testing seven new small crossover models on both sides and released the results last week.
All had "good" driver-side ratings, but only the 2016 Hyundai Tucson received a "good" rating on the passenger side. Of the six other crossovers tested, the 2015 Toyota RAV4 fared worst with a "poor" rating on the passenger side.
Both IIHS and Toyota said the results weren't surprising. Rather than waiting to re-engineer both sides, Toyota took quick steps to enhance the driver side, it said in a statement. "Looking ahead, we've incorporated enhancements on both the driver's and passenger's side for vehicles built on Toyota's new TNGA platforms, beginning with the 2016 Prius."