A few years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) set out to really test car bumpers – to put them through the paces of a real-life crash. Engineers smashed bumpers into other bumper-like objects, instead of into walls, and set collisions at angles and different heights.
Some of what they found is hardly a surprise, like the fact that many of today's bumpers don't align. Anyone who's seen a diminutive compact next to an SUV could tell you that.
But engineers also reached a troubling conclusion, especially given the dramatic improvements in vehicle safety over the past 40 years. Bumpers, it seems, haven't kept up. In fact, they may have gotten worse.
"Bad bumpers," the IIHS summed up, "are the norm."
To understand just how bad, consider this: the bumper that provided the best protection, by far, in the low-speed crash-test was on a 1981 Ford Escort. After four impacts – two corner hits at 3 mph and two full-width hits at 6 mph – the 30-year-old Ford sustained a total of just $469 in damage, all from the 6 mph hits.
By contrast, each of the new vehicles – 17 new midsize models in 2007 – sustained damages ranging from $4,277 (the Mitsubishi Galant) to $9,051 (the Nissan Maxima). For each vehicle, at least $1,800 of that damage was the result of the two corner strikes at just 3 mph - the speed equivalent of a moderate walk.
"Automakers could equip new cars with bumpers that are every bit as good as the 1981 Ford Escort's, but they choose not to," IIHS president Adrian Lund stated in the report.
Later, he added: "There's no excuse for this. Safety equipment like headlights shouldn't be damaged in impacts at a mere 3 mph."
The results of such crash tests are important to anyone who drives. Or, more specifically, to anyone who pays for auto insurance.
A significant portion of your auto insurance premium is based on the likelihood you will have an accident and the anticipated cost of that accident. Car insurance companies that expect to pay $9,000 for a fender bender will charge you accordingly, through higher premiums and higher deductibles.
The average cost of all collision claims – excluding repairs that aren't submitted to insurance – has risen 38 percent in the past decade, to $4,047, according to the IIHS,
"It's quite amazing that we have the system that we do," says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, an IIHS affiliate. "We've got vehicles that are increasingly safer for us, that protect us in larger crashes, but they're increasingly fragile" in low-speed crashes.
Today's vehicles have remarkable safety designs, says Hazelbaker, "but none of that engineering translates into the ability to take a lickin' and keep on tickin' at the low end."
Part of the problem dates back to 1982, when the Reagan administration rolled back federal bumper regulations. Put in place in 1971, they required that bumpers protect safety equipment and sheet metal parts in collisions up to 5 mph.
In the IIHS tests, the headlights on the 1981 Ford Escort did not sustain damage in the front or corner hits, thanks to a wide bumper. All of the new cars did.
The Ford's bumper also extended out far enough to protect the grille and the sheet metal. Not only that, the energy-absorbing material within the bumper was still good for another crash. Modern bumpers often must be replaced after a single incident.
In the front full-width crash, only the Ford's bumper was damaged, at a cost of $86. By comparison, the Subaru Legacy sustained $3,911 in damage in that 6 mph hit.
Adding to the problem: the cost of repairs is climbing by the minute.
You don't have to be very old to remember when you could pick up a headlight for $20 and pop it in yourself with a screwdriver. Those days are gone.
Even if you can reach the components, a halogen or krypton headlight could cost hundreds of dollars; a new, steerable light may cost thousands.
Auto makers mount cruise-control sensors on front grilles, and cameras on front and rear panels. Those spots easily are crushed at 6 mph or less.
"We're going to pay for a lot of sensors in a lot of low-speed crashes, because it's in an area that's easily damaged," Hazelbaker says.
Meanwhile, that ultra high-strength steel that makes today's cars tough yet lightweight can't just be punched back into a shape with a hammer, or even welded using traditional techniques. Paint, too, must be color-coded and applied in shops with equipment that meets health and environmental safety standards.
"Even the small-level crashes require a high level of repair, a high level of skill," says Denise Caspersen, collision division manager for the Auto Service Association.
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