Increasing the amount of aluminum and other lightweight structural materials in vehicles and lengthening crumple zones can reduce injuries in crashes involving SUVs up to 26%, a new study released by The Aluminum Assn. Inc. (AAI) concludes.

The study, presented to the Washington Automotive Press Assn., was conducted by Dynamic Research Institute (DRI) and was designed to evaluate how crashworthiness and compatibility would be affected if a vehicle’s weight was reduced or remained constant, but its size was maintained or increased.

Aluminum is strong, lightweight and pliable, allowing it to increase the effectiveness of vehicle crumple zones during a crash.

“What the data tells us is that high-strength, lightweight materials like aluminum can be used to improve an SUV’s crashworthiness and better protect its occupants and the occupants of smaller vehicles in a crash,” says Tom Gannon, chairman of AAI’s auto and light-truck group.

Specifically, the study quantifies how the aspects of a crash with another vehicle would be affected with a slightly redesigned SUV. One part of the study used aluminum to reduce the weight of an SUV 20%, while keeping its size the same. Another part extended the crumple zones of an SUV about 4 ins. (10.2 cm) without increasing the weight of the vehicle.

Audi A8 scores well in government crash tests because of its lightweight aluminum-intensive design.

This aluminum-intensive design process can be found on the 5-star safety rated Audi A8 and the latest-generation Jaguar XJ.

Today’s rising fuel costs and the growing concern regarding vehicle safety and SUV crashworthiness make the results from the study all the more appropriate. Additionally, AAI wanted to present the study’s results before the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s proposed restructuring of the corporate average fuel economy program.

“Depending on the specific approach pursued, NHTSA’s forthcoming proposal to restructure the CAFE program for SUVs, pickups and minivans could inadvertently create disincentives for use of innovative tools, technologies and lightweight materials by auto makers,” Gannon says.

“Our goal is to ensure no artificial barriers are created that could potentially take innovative solutions linked to high-strength, lightweight materials out of the hands of the car makers.”

Using real-world information from NHTSA’s crash databases, the study’s 500 crash scenarios were simulated using DRI’s computer modeling programs and were selected to represent the national average for moderately severe collisions, which means that at least one of the vehicles involved was towed away.

Aluminum is currently the third most-used material in automotive construction, behind only steel and iron. Vehicles for the ’03 model year contained an average of 274 lbs. (124 kg) of aluminum, of which 90% will be recovered and recycled, the study reports.