March 2, 2007

Most bumpers don’t work in low-speed crashes, says IIHS

Arlington, Virginia – The first results of new tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that most bumpers on midsize cars do little to resist damage in the low-speed collisions that are common in commuter traffic and parking lots. The new tests assess how well bumpers protect vehicles from expensive damage in fender-benders.

Of the 17 midsize cars tested, only the Mitsubishi Galant, Toyota Camry and Mazda6 withstood four bumper tests with $1,500 damage or less in each test (all prices U.S.). Some cars sustained more than $4,500 in just one of the four tests, and two cars rang up more than $9,000 in total damage.

“Our tests measure how well bumpers protect cars from damage in everyday bumps,” says IIHS President Adrian Lund. “The whole purpose of bumpers is to keep damage away from headlights, hoods, and other parts that are expensive to repair, but this purpose was accomplished in only two of the 68 tests we conducted. In the rest, what we found is that bumpers aren’t up to the job.”

The IIHS began conducting low-speed crash tests in 1969, hitting a flat barrier at 5 mph (8 km/h). The tests led to the first federal bumper rules for cars, which required the bumpers to resist damage in impacts up to that speed. The requirements were eventually rolled back by the Reagan Administration in 1982.

Recent research shows that some of the most costly low-speed crash damage occurs when vehicle bumpers slide under or over each other, which happens when they don’t line up, or braking before the impact lowers the front end before hitting another vehicle. Under- and override often result in damage to grilles, headlights, hoods and fenders.

The new tests use a barrier designed to mimic the design of a car bumper; the four tests include front and rear full-width impacts at 6 mph (9.6 km/h) and front and rear corner impacts at 3 mph (4.8 km/h). The barrier is 18 inches (45.7 cm) off the ground in the full-width test and 16 inches (40.6 cm) in the corner impacts.

“We don’t want the automakers to change bumper heights just to get good performance in our tests,” Lund says. “We want car bumpers to resist damage in real crashes with other cars as well as with higher-riding SUVs and pickups, so we revamped our tests to reflect such crashes. In particular, we want to encourage automakers to use bumpers with energy-absorbing bars that extend farther into vehicle corners to reduce damage to headlights and other critical and costly equipment.”

In the full-front test, only the Galant, Camry, Mazda6 and Saturn Aura stayed engaged with the test barrier, instead of going under or over it. Damage to three of the four was less than $1,000, and the Aura was the only one among the 17 tested to limit damage to the bumper itself in full-front without getting into the car body. In contrast, the Nissan Maxima, Pontiac G6 and Volkswagen Passat sustained more than $4,500 damage in the full-front test, as they under-rode the barrier.

In the rear bumper test, the Hyundai Sonata’s total damage came to $739, while the Chrysler Sebring, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Jetta and Aura sustained more than $3,000 damage each. In the corner impacts, all 17 vehicles sustained headlight damage.

In contrast, the IIHS tested a 1981 Ford Escort, which met the old bumper requirements. In the full-front test, it sustained $86 damage, limited to the bumper; the full-rear test resulted in $383. “The best performer among the new cars sustained ten times as much damage as the Escort in the same four tests,” Lund says.

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