Are Car Manufacturers Compromising On Safety In Favor Of Style? - The Story Of Poor Bumper Design

by golbguru on April 25, 2007

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released some interesting crash results in a report published in March this year. The report summarizes the damage and the costs involved for numerous vehicles when crash-tested at 3 mph (corner impact) and 6 mph (full impact) for bumper performance, in tests that were designed to simulate real-life vehicle-to-vehicle impact scenarios. Just to put things into perspective, the average human walks at about 3 miles per hour….so we are talking of really low speeds.

bumper crash examples


The results of the bumper tests are not very encouraging. Here is how IIHS president Adrian Lund summarizes them in the report:

The whole purpose of bumpers is to keep damage away from head-lights, hoods, and other parts that are expensive to repair, but this purpose was accomplished in only 2 of the 68 tests we conducted. In the rest, what we found is that bumpers aren’t up to the job.

When bumpers fail their functional requirements, safety issues and damage and repair cost issues will arise. Here are some post-crash repair costs for various vehicles that were tested.

bumper repair costs


It should be noted that costs in the above table are just repair costs, incidentals are not included. For example, if your headlights are damaged in a night-time crash, you won’t be able to drive the car home. This means additional costs of transportation and some priceless headache.

Note the numbers on the 1981 Ford Escort. Apparently, it seems to have the best bumper ever designed. So what if it looks a bit ugly (see image below). Ugly is better than thousands of dollars in repair costs.

1981 ford escort

The Best Bumper Ever: 1981 Ford Escort

One reason for the 1981 Ford acing the performance is that it was built before the federal standards for bumper tests were slackened in 1982. Before 1982, all bumper crash tests were performed at 5 mph (with stringent checks on damage to safety equipment); now they are being performed at 2.5 mph and allow unlimited damage (man…how many times people crash cars at 2.5 mph or slower?).

According to IIHS, the two main factors that drove up the costs for some of the vehicles were: 1. just poor design resulting in extensive damage, and 2. prices of parts that were damaged. The report suggests that manufacturers may have been compromising on bumper performance in favor of style. Hmm…talk about the general human tendency to assign undue importance to external appearances. :)

Yeah, insurance can cover the costs…but keep in mind that this study is conducted by IIHS, which is wholly supported by insurance agencies. Any results published by the institute are bound to influence insurance costs. So, in a way, you will be paying more for poorly designed bumpers, whether you are in a crash or not.

Click here to read the entire report (pdf file).

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Damien Passehl 04.25.07 at 11:04 am

The part that costs the most really isnt the bumper even it is the plastic bumper cover that is so expensive. The truth is that with 2-3 hours worth of research on the internet you can easily find out how to fix most dings and dents. You can even learn how to plastic weld(yes you really can weld plastic). What one must realize is that it is better to be a jack of all trades and a master of none than to know almost nothing about everything and everything about one thing and have to pay for repairs on damn near everything. Remember you can never learn to much.

Damien Passehl
- -

2 golbguru 04.26.07 at 1:55 am

Plastic welding sounds interesting. But that will work if *only* the bumper is damaged. But apparently, the poor design is causing more stuff to break than just the bumper…that’s going to get to the wallet for sure. :)

3 zen 04.26.07 at 6:25 am

In the words of Chris Rock:
“That’s like cadillac making a bumper that won’t fall off - they can, but they won’t - the money is in fixing it, not making it last” (paraphrased, of course)

If they could make a car that lasted 100 years, it would destroy the economy (theoretically).

4 Gaming the Credit System 04.26.07 at 3:07 pm

Yeah, that sucks, but they’re not really compromising “safety” (as you say in the headline) as much as, you know, car protection. And yes, it is ridiculous. I guess it’s not so surprising that some of the most popular accessories for SUV’s and trucks are those metal grille guards.

5 Golbguru 04.26.07 at 5:00 pm

Well as I see it, safety is one part of the equation. Although, I agree that the emphasis is more on the costs than safety (on second thoughts, I should have probably chosen “good design practices” instead of “safety” in the title).

However, I was thinking more in terms of ability of safely driving away from a 3 mph crash. If a low speed crash damages some vital parts inside the car (instead of just the bumper), it’s no longer safe to be driven away from the scene of crash. However, I think there would be an increasing propensity to drive away with the damaged (and potentially unsafe) car with an assumption that “ was just a minor ding, I think it would be perfectly ok to drive this car home”.

6 Lemuel Jopio 04.26.07 at 9:37 pm

The car industry has done a magnificent job evoking passion or emotion when it comes to buying an automobile. Social responsibility is often overlooked when it comes to owning a car entirely based on esthetic appeal (And yes, I still want that Gas Guzzlin Hummer H2!).

7 Yan 04.27.07 at 3:34 pm

You could probably extend your perspective to many other things in life. Everything related to fashion can get ridiculously impractical.

8 Traciatim 04.30.07 at 10:31 am

Here is the next question. How much impact was felt by the driver of the 1981 escort vs the 2007 Maxima? At 10Mph, how about 65Mph?

Cars are designed these days to crumple when hit because the crumpling will absorb energy from the accident.

I would be willing to bet at 20Mph hitting something in the ‘81 escort you would walk away with a sore neck, back, or shoulder. The newer cars would probably feel much less impact on the driver/passengers.

Also, they don’t really say if the prices were 1981 prices for the equivelant parts for the escort. $469 inflation adjusted at 3% to 2007 brings you to about $1350 or so (with some general rounding).

Just because it costs more to fix doesn’t mean it’s less safe. I would rather foot the $20 cab ride home then have a snapped collar bone.

9 G 04.30.07 at 10:49 am

A 1991 chrome bumper is heavy.
A plastic/foam bumper is not.
Weight decreases MPG.
Weight impacts Corporate CAFE.
Decreases in Corporate CAFE cost big money…

Every ounce on a car has to be accounted for…

There is more going on than just styling…

if car companies could build a car that lasted 100 years — people would STILL want a new one every 3 to 5 years…

Foam and platic also disipate energy more efficiently than the old bumper on a spring…

10 golbguru 04.30.07 at 11:17 am

Traciatim and G:

Thanks for the feedback.

I am not trying to be defensive, but here is something to think about (from the report):

It’s a stylish look, but it doesn’t help when it comes to resisting damage in low-speed collisions because there’s not much room for absorbing crash energy before it reaches the car body and damages it. Plus the emphasis on a sleek look encourages designers to shorten the width of the bumper bars that extend across the fronts and backs of vehicles to absorb crash energy.

In almost every test of all 17 cars, damage
extended beyond the bumper. In many tests, safety equipment was destroyed.

If a 3~6 mph collision damages your car’s unibody structure, I will find it hard to argue that “safe” design practices were followed. Measuring safety in terms of human survivability in high speed crashes is just one (essential) safety consideration - this doesn’t mean that everything else is “not a safety issue”.

Like Traciatim says “cars are supposed to crumple” - bumpers are also supposed to crumple and the report is not about crumpled bumpers that are expensive to replace. It’s about bumpers that are not doing the crumpling properly and thereby increasing the damage to the vehicles in low speed crash.

G: I agree that weight is important, but you don’t need metal for a *good* bumper design. The 1981 Ford’s bumper wasn’t safe just because it was heavy and made of metal - it just turned out to be a better design (whether by fluke or by conscious effort). I am pretty sure you could create an safe and efficient design with foam and plastic - if there is a will. Energy absorbing foams are no good if they are not placed in the right amount at the right places - i.e. if they are not designed properly.

11 LeeLoo 06.05.07 at 9:54 am

I guess manufacturers are just expanding the market for new cars.
They build machines which go to junkyard after the slightest crash forcing people to buy new ones.

12 saintbumper 10.31.07 at 10:15 am

The Federal regulations for bumpers:
49 CFR Part 581, “The bumper standard,” prescribes performance requirements for passenger cars in low-speed front and rear collisions. It applies to front and rear bumpers on passenger cars to prevent the damage to the car body and safety related equipment at barrier impact speeds of 2½ mph across the full width and 1½ mph on the corners.

Bumpers are not there to protect the occupants of the vehicle.

Keep in mind that the 2 1/2 mph bumper standard only applies to passenger cars - it does not apply to pickup trucks, SUVs or Mini Vans. There are no federal bumper standards for these vehicles.

13 voice of reason 01.04.08 at 6:14 am

The Escort has hydraulic energy absorbers, so you do not see much spike in the passenger compartment. Too bad the regs are so weak that few cars use these bumper mounts any longer. It’s a lot of money going down the rabbit hole for these low-speed crashes. Not to mention the crazy loopphole for minivans and trucks (PT Cruisers, etc). Mismatch of load paths has implications across a broad range of crashes.

14 Plain Talker 01.05.10 at 1:18 pm

True. VOR. The Escort had hydraulic energy absorbers. The same for my old 1982 Honda Civic. If the 1982 had an airbag, it would probably be safer than a 2010 Civic.

Deregulation is overated. You see bankrupted banks and manufacturing companies.

Let’s get back to the 5MPH crash limit.

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