Marshie Agee, communications liaison for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, gave a lecture at Wednesday's Senior Statesmen of Virginia meeting. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Dozens of people gasped and grimaced as they watched brand-new cars slam into barriers during a lecture at the Senior Center on Wednesday.

Marshie Agee, communications liaison for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, presented these crash-test videos and a wealth of information at a meeting of the Senior Statesmen of Virginia.

The IIHS is an independent, nonprofit organization that aims to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage from crashes on U.S. roads through scientific research and educational outreach. The IIHS and its partner organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute, are entirely funded by auto insurers and insurance associations.

“We hope that we have changed the way consumers go about buying cars,” Agee said. “We hope the first question consumers ask before buying a vehicle is not whether it is fast or sporty, but whether it is safe.”

The IIHS established its Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville 25 years ago and has conducted crash tests on cars there since 1995. Automakers covet the institute’s annual Top Safety Pick awards, which recognize new models that perform best in its safety tests.

“Manufacturers love using these awards in their advertising,” Agee said. “If we dangle that carrot out there, it encourages them to make [safety] improvements.”

In 1995, fewer than 25 percent of vehicle models received the highest safety rating, “Good,” in the institute’s first round of frontal crash tests. That percentage rapidly increased, and today, virtually all new models get the top rating for this test.

The IIHS has gradually expanded its testing regimen for new vehicles over the years.

“We don’t let the manufacturers rest on their laurels for very long before we introduce a new challenge,” Agee said.

The IIHS conducts five different crashworthiness tests today: moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints/seats.

The small overlap front test, introduced in 2012, is the latest addition to the program. It evaluates damage caused by an impact to the front corner of a car. At first, the IIHS found that many cars that performed well in the moderate overlap test still crumpled when struck in this vulnerable spot, causing severe whiplash to the crash test dummy inside.

By 2017, most models tested by IIHS received a “Good” rating in the small overlap test.

Agee said the IIHS is currently using its influence to encourage improvements to headlights and automatic braking systems. Only seven 2017 models received a “Good” rating in its first headlight tests last year. “Manufacturers have a long way to go,” Agee said.

Last year, 20 of the world’s largest automakers pledged to make automatic braking systems a standard feature on all new cars by September 2022. However, Agee said, it could be decades until most cars on the road have automatic emergency braking systems.

The IIHS also studies ways to improve driver behavior and roadway design. It endorses the use of automated enforcement technology such as red-light cameras and speed cameras. Agee said the IIHS recognizes that these cameras prompt some concerns about privacy, but she still firmly believes that drivers “do not have the right to run a red light and put others’ lives at risk.”

After the lecture, Albemarle County School Board member Steve Koleszar said the division’s driver education program has made students safer by increasing the number of driving hours required to receive a license and offering mandatory classes for parents on how to teach their children to drive.

Edgar Gunter, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia, said that maintaining tire pressure and rotating car tires are crucial safety measures that few drivers do. “It’s so important to train kids early on in high school about vehicle stability,” Gunter said.

Jim Wilson took notes throughout Agee’s presentation and said “people don’t take driving seriously enough.”

“About 60 Americans die in car crashes each day,” Wilson said. “If we had daily plane crashes that killed 60 people, no one would say that was acceptable.”


Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.