Insurance Institute for Highway Safety turns 50

At the most recent meeting of the Louisville Area Skeptics, Dr. David Porta discussed how his research involves using cadavers to study how the human body reacts to different kinds of trauma.  The focus of the discussion was mostly on human vs. automobile collisions, and he discussed many of the different tests he and his team has performed.  It was an informative and exciting presentation.

He ended with a question.  He showed us a picture of a 2009 Chevy Malibu, and a 1959 Chevy Bel Air:

2009 Chevy Malibu

1959 Chevrolet Bel Air

He asked us our opinion of which car would “win” in a collision.  Specifically, an offset collision (head-to-head, but not perfectly in line with one another) where each car is going 40 mph (65 kph).  So what’s your opinion?  Think about it for a second.  I’ll wait…Got a guess?

Well, after we had talked about it for a bit, and the crowd was not unanimous about it, Dr. Porta mentioned that the two cars have roughly the same mass, so let any thoughts of “giant hunk of heavy 1950′s steel” go out of your head.

Turns out we don’t have to guess.  For their 50th anniversary, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) performed this test, to show how far we’ve come.

Here’s the thing – we have that vision in our heads that the older cars were somehow safer because they were heavier, or they were more steel, or whatever…  But when you collide them…  What’s that?  You want to see video???  Well, OK…  If you insist…

What you’re seeing in there is the result of 50 years of advancement in car building technology.

Based on the data recorded by the dummies, the driver of the Bel Air was dead on impact.

Bel Air Post-Crash

“This car had no seat belts or air bags. Dummy movement wasn’t well controlled, and there was far too much upward and rearward movement of the steering wheel. The dummy’s head struck the steering wheel rim and hub and then the roof and unpadded metal instrument panel to the left of the steering wheel.

“During rebound, the dummy’s head remained in contact with the roof and slid rearward and somewhat inward. The windshield was completely dislodged from the car and the driver door opened during the crash, both presenting a risk of ejection. In addition, the front bench seat was torn away from the floor on the driver side.”

Meanwhile, the total of potential injuries to the Malibu driver were fully described in one sentence:

Malibu Post-Crash

“A high acceleration was recorded on the left foot, indicating that foot injuries would be possible.”

The driver in the Malibu looks like he’s waiting for the light to change.  Sure, the front of the car has seen better days, but where the people are?  It didn’t collapse at all.

What makes the Malibu survive this crash so much better than the Bel Air?  Science and engineering.  And really smart and creative people making our lives better.  Imagine this — 50 years from now, will the 2059 Chevy Oxnard* be this superior to the Malibu?  Will the Malibu be the one that we’re looking at with mouth agape, thinking how horrible the crash was for that vehicle?  I think it’s possble.  (The Oxnard also better be a flying car – we’ve been waiting long enough!!!  But that’s a story for another day…)

As long as there are cars, there will be accidents**, so we need to go find a scientist, an engineer, someone like that, and say “Thanks.  You make our world a better place.”

..Rob T. hopes he fares better than the Bel Air at age 50.

* – “Oxnard” only because if you start at Bel Air, CA, drive to Malibu, then keep going that same distance again (turning a little bit north so as not to drive into the Pacific), you wind up in Oxnard.  Chevy seems to like the California city theme, and I thought the Oxnard would be better than the “Chevy Thousand Oaks”.

** – Even once we have cars that drive themselves — and cars that fly themselves — someone’s gonna flip that puppy into manual at the wrong moment, or the computer will go a little berzerk, or something, and there’ll still be crashes.  Wasn’t that Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion – “Bodies in motion tend to collide at the most inopportune moments”???


8 Responses to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety turns 50

  1. Laurie T. says:

    Science rules!! (That video is hard to watch.)

  2. teacherninja says:

    Wow. That got me. Of course, I was in a head on this summer, so that might be part of it. I’m still here thanks to SCIENCE!

  3. Eric says:

    Love the jeopardy tune!

  4. Wow. Thanks for posting. I remind people that are so upset at how newer cars collapses on impact, that it’s supposed to do that. That’s a major component of modern design. The front and the back absorb the energy of impact sparing the passengers. A honeycomb of plastic is way better for shock absorbency than sheets of metal.

    I knew this guy who refused to wear seat belts. His reasoning? He has a friend accidentally drive off a cliff near Big Sur. During the accident he was thrown from the vehicle and escaped from certain death as the vehicle tumbled down to the ocean. Therefor he will not wear a seat belt as well, so if he ever drives off a cliff, there’s a chance he could get thrown from the vehicle like his friend.

    I’m not making this up I swear!

    • Rob T says:

      I have heard the same reasoning for skipping seat belts before. And also the rationale that people never used to wear them and we’re not all dead, so they must not be necessary!


      Debating someone on that topic is usually futile and frustrating.

  5. CriticalThinking says:

    Yes, and all of you should google and read various blogs regarding the 1959 vs 2009 crash – there are so many stupid people out there, that they insist that the video was ‘rigged’, ‘faked’, or the 1959 was ‘rusty’, various conspiracy theories are everywhere. Because it did not turn out the way they expected, it must not be true. The video did not convince a surprising number of idiots out there. Science knowledge and education is really bad in the US. The general population is so ignorant, much more than in Europe.

  6. sikiş says:

    Thank you so much for writing a lot of this excellent info! Looking forward to seeintg more.0

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