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Minivan Crash Tests: Front-Seat Safety Improves, Backseat Safety Declines

toyota sienna 2023 interior iihs 06 jpg 2023 Toyota Sienna | IIHS image

Minivans and families often go hand in hand, which is why the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is raising an alarm about backseat safety in some people movers. According to the agency’s crash tests of four popular minivans, none of them earned an acceptable or good rating in the updated moderate overlap front crash test, which emphasizes backseat safety.

Related: Here’s Every Car That Earned an IIHS Top Safety Award for 2023

The vans earned marginal or poor scores because of the rear crash-test dummies’ backseat injuries. IIHS tested model-year 2023 versions of the Chrysler Pacifica, Kia Carnival and Toyota Sienna, which earned marginal ratings, and the 2023 Honda Odyssey, which received a poor rating.

Updated Test

The agency updated its moderate overlap front test in 2022 to include new metrics that focus on backseat passenger injury, and it’s not just minivans struggling with it. In a December study, several new SUVs also failed to score well.

In the test, an adult male dummy sits in the driver’s seat and a smaller dummy meant to simulate a small woman or 12-year-old child sits behind the driver. In order for a vehicle to score well, IIHS said the structure of the occupant compartment must maintain adequate survival space, and measurements taken from the dummies shouldn’t show an excessive risk of injuries.

For example, there can’t be an excessive risk of injury to the head, neck, chest or thigh for the second-row dummy. It should also remain correctly positioned during the crash and not slide beneath the lap belt. This “submarining” increases the risk of abdominal injuries. Other improper belt placements also cause injuries and lead to lower scores in the test.

Minivan Ratings

According to IIHS, all four minivans provide good protection in the front seat but have issues when it comes to second-row protection.

“The restraint systems in all four vehicles leave the second-row occupant vulnerable to chest injuries either because of excessive belt forces or poor belt positioning,” Jessica Jermakian, IIHS vice president of vehicle research, said in a statement.

In the poor-rated Honda Odyssey, the second-row dummy’s head and neck were subjected to high crash forces, and the rear seat belt allowed the dummy’s head to come too close to the front seatback, increasing the risk of head injuries, IIHS said.

Similarly, in the marginal-rated Kia Carnival, the crash forces on the rear dummy’s neck were too high. The dummy’s head also contacted the head restraint hard during rebound, further increasing the risk of injury. In the Chrysler Pacifica, which also earned a marginal rating, the crash forces on the rear dummy’s neck were within reasonable limits, but the seat belt exerted too much force on the dummy’s chest. The minivan’s side curtain airbag also failed to deploy. Lastly, in the marginal-rated Toyota Sienna, the rear passenger dummy’s lap belt moved onto the abdomen, increasing the risk of abdominal injuries. The tests also showed a moderate risk of injury to the chest.

What’s Next?

Despite these scores, IIHS cautions that the backseat is still the safest place for children and that the ratings do not apply to children secured properly in child-safety seats. The agency also said it’s not that backseats are getting less safe; it’s that front seats are becoming safer because of improved airbags and advanced seat belts that are rarely available in the back.

The agency is calling on automakers to make improvements to the backseat to close this safety gap. “It’s disappointing that automakers haven’t acted faster to apply the best available technology to the second row in this vehicle class,” IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement.

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News Editor Jennifer Geiger joined the automotive industry in 2003, much to the delight of her Corvette-obsessed dad. Jennifer is an expert reviewer, certified car-seat technician and mom of three. She wears a lot of hats — many of them while driving a minivan. Email Jennifer Geiger

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