They Just Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
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.