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They Just Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

January 30, 2010

Still from the video

1959 Chevy Bel-Air vs. 2009 Chevy Malibu

When I started driving, oh so many years ago, my Dad kept insisting that I need a “big ol’ car.” Something huge, boat-like and solid. His choice – my grandmother’s 1960’s era Mercury sedan, the car equivalent of taking your living room out for a spin. My choice – a 1989 Ford Taurus inherited from an uncle. Dad insisted the Mercury was the right choice for me. “They just don’t make them like they used to” he said.

Well Dad, it turns out that’s true, they don’t make them like they used to. Newer cars may be smaller and lighter, but they are also safer. Much, much safer. And its all thanks to science.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2009 by staging an offset front-end crash between a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu. Which do you think came out better for the vehicle or the driver? The actual results are documented in this video, available on the IIHS site or on YouTube (the YouTube version has interesting audio commentary, so I would choose that one).

Data and Conclusions from the Crash Test

The crash is scary, and not just because the IIHS smashes up a beautiful old Bel-Air. The front end and passenger compartment of the Bel-Air are crushed into the dummy. Inside, his legs are bent up and in toward his chest (you can see this really well in the pictures on the IIHS site). A real person would likely have broken both legs. During the crash, you can also see that the dummy is flung forward into the steering column, and the lack of restraint from a seatbelt and airbag allows his head and neck to take a beating. A real person in this car would likely have terrible crush injuries to the chest, whiplash and other neck injuries, and major injuries to the face and head from impacts with the steering wheel, windshield and/or other parts of the cabin. An accident like this in the ’59 Bel-Air (or any car of this vintage) would most likely result in severe injury or death.

The modern Malibu is also crushed, but as the commentary points out, this car has a front-end crumple zone. It is engineered to absorb the impact of the crash and distribute the energy away from the passenger compartment. If you look at the IIHS after pictures, you can see the passenger compartment of the Malibu is intact, and the dummy’s legs are not crushed by the wrecked car. During the crash, the dummy in the Malibu is still flung forward, but he is held in place better by the shoulder belt and cushioned against impact with the steering wheel and windshield by the airbag. These safety features also keep his head and neck from moving around as much as they would in the Bel-Air, reducing the severity of whiplash injuries and the likelihood of injuries to the face and head. In the Malibu (or any newer model with modern safety features), a person could have some airbag burns, whiplash, and in the worst case, a broken ankle or foot injury. But they would have walked (ok, maybe limped) away.

That’s a huge difference in outcome from the same crash. And it’s all from engineering. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has worked with car manufacturers to make cars safer over the last fifty years, and they will continue to do so for as long as there are cars on the road.

A little about the IIHS

The IIHS is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1959. They are upfront about the fact that all of their research is funded by major auto insurance companies. This may sound like a bad thing, but realize that it is in an insurance company’s best interest to keep you from being injured in an accident. By reducing injury and property damage, they cut the amount they have to pay out in claims, right? The IIHS has a full list of corporate sponsors front and center on their website.

The IIHS mission is to use scientific testing and educational outreach to reduce death, injury and property damage on the nation’s roads. They generate and publish a huge amount of data — all of it publicly available through their website — in three main areas (quoting directly from the website):

  • Human factors research addresses problems associated with teenage drivers, alcohol-impaired driving, truck driver fatigue, and safety belt use, to name a few.
  • Vehicle factors research focuses on both crash avoidance and crashworthiness. Crash tests are central to crashworthiness research, and the Institute has been conducting such tests for decades to illustrate, for example, the importance of safety belts and airbags. This work expanded with the opening of the Institute’s Vehicle Research Center and an ongoing program of frontal offset crash tests.
  • Research aimed at the physical environment includes, for example, assessment of roadway designs to reduce run-off-the-road crashes and eliminate roadside hazards.

Whenever you see a vehicle safety rating, read a bulletin warning you to avoid driving while drunk or talking on your cell phone, or hear of a government’s plan to improve a road to make it safer for drivers, the IIHS and its science probably played a role.

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11 Comments
  1. CarsForFun permalink

    And all this information, with scientific proof, there is a surprisingly large portion of the US population that does not believe it. Look at all the blogs and message boards surrounding this since last September. Many stupid people are insisting the test was ‘rigged’, the car had ‘no engine’, it was ‘rusty’, excuse after excuse. It did not turn out the way they expected it to, so they make up all these conspiracy theories. And if you browse around all these comments, you will see that they bring in politics, accuse the IIHS of being ‘fake’, and will defend their old crappy cars as being better than the new ones no matter what you explain to them about structure, high strength steel, and crumple zones. And the 1959 is only slightly heavier than the 2009, only 179 pounds more.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting CarsForFun. Unfortunately it’s not just this video that people don’t want to believe, it’s lots of things backed by scientific evidence: vaccine safety, global climate change, evolution, ineffective alternative medicines, on and on. Some people have turned the whole system on its head, lashing out against trusted governmental organizations and embracing the snake-oil salesmen instead. And its sad, because the only people the new trusted advisers care about is themselves. How people don’t see that I don’t understand. I also don’t understand the hostility and anger. Why are people so emotional in their disbelief? Because they have no facts and therefore nothing to put out there but noise?

  2. CarsForFun permalink

    Yes, all that is true – because of the lack of science education and knowledge in this country. No one should be able to graduate from anything without having general knowledge about HOW THE WORLD ACTUALLY WORKS. Basic physics, chemistry, and biology knowledge would go a long way to prevent those ‘snake oil’ people from pulling the wool over their eyes. And history – knowledge about even the recent past, would greatly influence decisions they make about today’s events. You know, George Santayana’s quote, ‘those that do not know their history are condemned to repeat it’. It’s very true. We also have a major cultural defect in this country – and that is that stupid, persistent concept of the ‘nerd’. For quite a few decades now, from the earliest days of childhood, peer pressure regarding this crushes all interest in science. It’s considered ‘uncool’ to be interested in anything real, only momentary culture and fads, plus sports. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that, eventually that becomes part of our history we need to pass on, but it is done TO THE EXCLUSION OF EVERYTHING ELSE. Why can’t we good at everything, and know about all of it, sports, music, fashion, cars, politics, astronomy, physics, math, biology, and the history of the above as well, so we know how we got to where we are now.
    The saddest thing? The poorest countries in eastern Europe have a much higher standard of education, and their peer pressure was to know everything, including to be good in school. Oh, and by the way, that was the Europe of my parents, -hold on – FROM THE 1920s AND 1930s. They knew more about history and science than the average American does today. And lived in houses with no plumbing or electricity.

    • I agree that the “nerd” meme is a problem in the United States, particularly when it comes to science and math. Why work hard for little money and glory when you can aspire to be a Wall Street power broker or professional athlete with a lot of money and status for relatively little effort?

      I also agree that there are gaps in the knowledge base of most Americans. But I disagree that one person can truly know it all anymore. There has been an explosion of knowledge and information in the 21st century, and its impossible for one person to have a good handle on everything going on in the modern world. We have to pick and choose to some extent. Would I like it if people chose issues of substance over the latest celebrity gossip? Yes. But if I had to pick one thing that students graduating from high schools should know about science its how science works. Every discipline has its own framework for explaining how the world works. In science we have the scientific method. Hypothesize, test, revise, repeat. Do you think if the public had a firm grasp of how science really does things it would dispel some of the nonsense?

  3. CarsForFun permalink

    Yes, if people had a firmer grasp of how science does things, a larger percentage would be less likely to believe in nonsense, but there would still be a surprising number who are stubborn and want to be ‘right’ – according to their ‘world view’ – even if it is obviously false. And yes, I agree that it’s impossible to get a handle on everything going on in the modern world, but too many people make no attempt to find out about that which affects them and the entire world, and do not want to hear complexity about anything. And yet, more often than not, the ‘devil is in the details’, as they say. And voters in the US tend to gravitate toward politicians who give simplistic, short, black and white answers. If it takes more than 2 sentences to explain something, their minds wander and they stop listening. For example, on some blog regarding a news story a few months ago, (I even forgot what it was about by now), one guy posts something dumb saying the article is stupid. Then another person posted a carefully researched reply, backing up their points with data, links to other sites, comparisons, analogies, etc. And the previous poster then replied, in a condescending tone, “blah, blah, blah. I got bored after your first sentence.’ And he continued posting his wrong ideas, completely ignoring those who kept trying to explain that he was wrong, and just replied to the ones that agreed with him, all of which said only 2 word or one sentence comments. (Very few people will read this post, I’m sure.)
    And that is what is going on about that 1959 vs 2009 crash test. That stupid cliche of how the old cars were ‘built like tanks’, they had ‘real american steel’, ‘it was rigged because the ’59 should have come out without a scratch’, shows that they know nothing about how much force is generated in a 40 mph crash. They think 40 is a ‘low’ speed, and there should not be that much damage. And some of those people even claim they have restored cars from that era, and claim they are very strong. They saw the whole car apart, they put it back together, but they did not understand what they were looking at. When I restored a mid 1960s chevy 20 years ago, I took most of the car apart. It was amazing how few bolts were holding the parts together, and the body was attached to the frame poorly, not welded together like today’s unibodies. There was no actual structure anywhere above the frame. The firewall was just a piece of sheetmetal, that was not tied together to the rockerpanels, a-pillar and roof in any meaningful structural manner. And that sheet metal is not as thick as many of the people think. And nothing besides the frame is shaped in a structurally strong way. If anything hits you above the structural frame, which would be more likely than not, all that sheet metal would just get sheared off, and nothing would stop the passenger compartment from being crushed. Driving that car is like driving a motorcycle – you have to be very careful and very aware, and drive only on nice days where there is little traffic. You could die in such a car in a crash speed as low as 20 mph. Amazing how I used to ride in the back seat of that car as a child, no car seats, no seatbelts, I would bounce around, walk and stand on the seats, and even climb in the back, behind the rear seat up by the window. My parents and no one else had a clue how dangerous that was. And if I sat in the front seat, they thought they could just hold me back if there was a crash. When car seats for kids first starting being publicized during the late 1970s and early 1980s, most people did not understand why they need to waste money on this, they could just ‘hold the kid in their laps’. Only when public information campaigns combined with more and more laws requiring their use, did people start using them, by the mid 1980s, that is. When many of the older people questioned this, I just asked them if they can lift 300 pounds with one arm. When they gave me a puzzled look, like ‘well of course not, what does that have to do with anything’, I just told them that in a 30 mph crash their 10 pound baby would rip out of their arms with a 300 pound force. That made them think. And it goes on, and on…

  4. I could not agree with you more, CarsForFun. Sound bites and the 24 hour, everything must be fresh every 10 minutes news cycle are ruining many people’s attention span and willingness to reach a deeper understanding. And the _rudeness_ people tolerate is staggering. I’m glad most of the readers who have left me comments (so far) have been civil, though only a handful are as thoughtful as you. I think if I ever got a comment that just said “that’s stupid” repeatedly, I would hit ‘delete permanently’ and not even let it on the blog. It degrades the level of discussion.

    Back on the subject of cars, I agree it’s a wonder anyone survived the 20th century. My husband’s grandparents were in a car accident in the 70’s, hit while in the intersection waiting to make a left. They were hospitalized with serious injuries (broken pelvis, collapsed lungs, etc) for weeks. A friend of ours was in a similar accident about a year ago. She suffered some airbag burns and bruises. We wish even that had not happened, but honestly, her car saved her life.

    I’m researching a post along these lines that I think would interest you. The IIHS released a report on driver safety over the last few decades, and interestingly they found that driver safety increased until about 1993. That’s when increases in vehicle safety started to be offset by increases in driver distractions (cell phones, GPS systems) and road hazards (heavy traffic, poor road maintenance). I should have it up by Monday. I look forward to your comments!

  5. CarsForFun permalink

    Very interesting research about the fatality rate. Yes, the equation is very complex, and there is at least some truth to what gun enthusiasts say, to paraphrase their cliche, “cars don’t kill people, people kill people”. What all the safety equipment is doing is making it more likely to survive an accident in a higher speed collision than before. Before safety standards were in place, and cars had to be crashworthy up to certain speed, cars of the 50s and 60s varied in design so that unless you crash tested the various designs like we do today, you would not necessarily know how they would do. It’s possible that some of them were overbuilt, and as long as you were wearing a seat belt, or installed them after the fact, maybe they would enable you to survive a 40 mph offset crash. But if that is so, there would be very few, and you can probably assume that all cars from that era, if crashed into a new car with about the same mass, would not do a good job of protecting the passengers. And the poor “X” frame design of some of the 1959 through 1964 GM models give you the result as we saw in that crash test. The only way that you might do relatively well in an old car crash is if the old car is of the largest, and heaviest of their day, vs a new small car. That old car would have to be twice the weight of the new one in order for that to even be possible. Like 5000 pound cadillacs or chrysler imperials. And those could not be older than around 1969, since that is the first year of shoulder belts for most american cars. So even if the passenger compartments do not collapse, the driver would bounce around in there and still be killed or severely injured. Some of the belief about the old cars being ‘built like tanks’ and the ‘new’ cars being ‘junk’ does come from the downsizing period of the late 1970s, early 1980s where many of the new designed american cars were very poor in every way, and many of the small cars weighed between 2000 and 2500 pounds. And since any safety equipment was still primitive when compared to today, the old full size cars would demolish the newer compacts, often the large old car could push the small light car, so that the driver of the old car would not feel the full speed of the impact, slowing him down more gradually, while the small car not only took the full force, but it’s passenger compartment collapses. In 1971, the IIHS did those offset crashes between largest and smallest of the same manufacturer, like ford pinto into ford galaxie, chevy vega into chevy impala, etc. And you can see the larger car pushes the small one back, even though both cars were going toward each other at the same speed. (Similar results with new small vs large crash tests. See large mercedes vs smart car.) BUT – if you look closely, the large car’s passenger compartments already started to fail, maybe not enough to crush the driver, but enough that you can guess that if the other car was 500 to 1000 pounds heavier, like a mid size car, the large car from back then would not do well in protecting the driver. And the new cars are quite heavy now. SUVs of 4000 pounds and 5000 pounds or more and not uncommon. Ordinary mid size cars are 3500 to 3800 pounds, or more. Combine that with a vault-like passenger compartment, even the largest cars of the 1950s and 1960s would likely have passenger compartment intrusion if one of today’s average sized cars hit them in a frontal collision.
    But it’s not the 70s or 80s. Changes happened really fast, and by the mid to late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, car design changed rapidly, and many more cars became crashworthy and higher speeds. It’s like many of the people that think the old cars are better never noticed the improvements taking place all around – and the greatest improvements were in the last 5 to 10 years. Most cars were only good for about a 30 mph crash into a barrier. When they started doing it at 40, most failed. Now they are designed to protect you up to 40, at least. And the mass is also there. And virtually every car allows to to walk away, or with just minor injuries at a 40 mph crash. Though that ‘they don’t build them like they used to’ cliche goes further back than that – I heard a conversation when I was a kid, late 1960s or so – “today’s cars are junk – I hit a brand new 1967 camaro with my 1949 hudson, and that new car folded up like tinfoil. I just got a dent in my bumper.” And in the 1950s, people complained the new cars metal was not as thick as it was before. And so it goes, round and round.
    So now it goes back to the original problem – the distracted driving you mentioned. Once the ‘death-proof’ car is invented, volvo says by 2020, I bet accidents will increase, as fatalities decrease. No one will care, they will not know their history, or how to drive, and in the back of their minds, subconsciously, will think, ‘so what if my car gets smashed, I will be fine, and the insurance will pay and I will just get a new one”.
    And after that long post, what is the solution? It’s obvious to most people who like cars, racing, etc. The car enthusiast magazines know also, and have been writing about it for decades. Teach people how to DRIVE, not just OPERATE A CAR within the sometimes arbitrary rules of the road. Whether you are 17 or 70, what you have to know in America to get a driver’s license is a complete joke. I am sick of parents, community leaders, politicians, worrying about teens driving, trying to restrict their licenses, or increase the age they can get a license, while they themselves can barely drive. What every new driver needs is not less driving but much, much more time behind the wheel with a professional instructor. Why is air travel the safest way to travel? Because pilots are professionals. No one should get a driver’s license until they are close to that. Teach the laws of physics as they apply to the automobile. How to get out of a skid and get the car back under control, with different car types, rear wheel drive, front wheel drive, and all wheel drive. How to do a panic stop, and how that feels, with a car that has anti-lock brakes, and one that does not. Have them get out of the car, and measure the stopping distance, and walk that distance. The car magazine says yours stops from 60 in 120 feet. Can you do that? Probably not as well as that professional driver. Walk 120 feet, see how far that really is. And that 60 mph that you were just doing? That’s 88 feet per second. Longer than the length of the largest tractor trailers. Maybe you will think twice about following too closely. How much force in a crash? Imagine running as fast as you can. What is that speed? 22 mph? The fastest olympic sprinter, what, 29 mph? Imagine not slowing down, just running into a wall, pole, tree, etc. No one would question that they would be badly injured or maybe killed. Yet they think 40 mph is a slow crash speed. And teach them how to drive on high speed interstates. Keep right, pass left. No passing on the right, ever. Move over to the right for faster traffic to pass you. Americans have no ‘lane discipline’, are clueless about how high speed traffic needs to flow, unlike those driving on the german autobahn. They know how to drive.

    • Thanks for taking a look and keeping up the discussion, Cars. I think people tend to think things were/are better in another place and time no matter the subject. The only way to say for sure is with hard evidence. But as you and I have been saying, it’s sad that many people don’t let their minds be changed when presented with such evidence. If I can influence just one person, I feel like I am not just shouting into the wilderness.

      I was actually surprised by the fatality rate findings and the interpretation by the IIHS. I expected them to say that vehicle designs were steadily getting better, and cars were steadily getting safer. I guess when the seatbelt kept people from being thrown out the windshield and the airbag kept you them being crushed into the steering column, drivers had to find new ways of killing themselves in cars. All that the safety devices changed was the TYPE of accident that was likely to kill or injure you. The paper touched on this, but didn’t go into detail, which is unfortunate because I know the IIHS does all kinds of testing. Like you said, you are less likely to be injured in a big old car if you hit a smaller car at low speed, but at higher speeds without safety features the person in the big car is also going to be hurt pretty badly. SUVs had similar problems, people felt that they were safer than cars, and they were in most impact studies, but some of the early SUVs were so top heavy they would roll over in situations where a car wouldn’t, and a rollover crash is a much more deadly situation.

      It’s a much more complicated situation than I have given it credit for in the posts, and there are a lot of factors to weigh in deciding how safe we are when we drive. This study and the crash tests are one piece, driver distractions like cell phones are another, good roadway design and infrastructure maintenance is important too. How often do we hear about dangerous intersections and scary blind curves? You talked about driver education and how it could be improved, I agree that’s another component of road safety. Graduated licensing programs may be helping teens get more experience, but we still have a long way to go. And what about those people driving without licenses, or on suspended licenses? Don’t even get me started on that.

  6. CarsForFun permalink

    As far as the engineering aspects are concerned,
    here is an interesting link:
    http://nwitimes.com/app/inbusiness/?p=3510

    A few quotes:

    “The only way we could find to make cars lighter and stronger at the same time was to introduce new grades with substantially greater strength so that cars could be made with thinner steels,” said Zuidema, who works at the company’s global research and development facility in East Chicago.”

    and:

    “Zuidema said product improvements have allowed the peak strength of steel components made for vehicle bodies to triple in the past several years.”

    plus:

    “At the Chicago Auto Show, the 2011 Ford Fiesta display says the subcompact, set to debut this summer, incorporates five types of steel, including higher-strength steels. Ford says the products used helped earn the vehicle crash-worthiness awards from organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.”

    This is part of what so many people are not understanding. Looks are deceiving, and they just see the new cars as having ‘thin’ panels, which they think are weaker. As you can see from the article, an incredible amount of engineering effort is taking place for all this, and for anyone to think that 40 or 50 year old cars are ‘better’ or ‘stronger’ is just beyond belief. The old cars are interesting, they have historical and cultural value, but they are poor in their engineering when compared to today’s cars. And if we really want to preserve these historical artifacts, and those who are driving them, people need to stop perpetuating the myth that they are ‘better’ or ‘stronger’. Otherwise the general public will continue thinking, “oh that old car is built like a tank! I don’t have to drive carefully around it, since he will just get a dent in the bumper, and my new car will be totalled!” Those who want to preserve the old cars need to be like the motorcycle people – look at the cars they drive – they often have bumper stickers saying “watch out for motorcycles”. Motorcycle enthusiasts are always trying to increase public awareness of the dangers of cars vs motorcycles, and how vulnerable riders are. The classic car crowd should be doing the same thing.

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