In the 50 years since U.S. insurers organized the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, car crashworthiness has improved. Demonstrating this was a crash test conducted on Sept. 9 between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. In a real-world collision similar to this test, occupants of the new model would fare much better than in the vintage Chevy.
"It was night and day, the difference in occupant protection," says Institute president Adrian Lund. “What this test shows is that automakers don't build cars like they used to. They build them better."
The crash test was conducted at an event to celebrate the contributions of auto insurers to highway safety progress over 50 years. Beginning with the Institute's 1959 founding, insurers have maintained the resolve, articulated in the 1950s, to "conduct, sponsor, and encourage programs designed to aid in the conservation and preservation of life and property from the hazards of highway accidents."
A decade after the Institute was founded, insurers directed this organization to begin collecting data on crashes and the cost of repairing vehicles damaged in crashes. To lead this work and the Institute's expanded research program, insurers named a new president, William Haddon Jr., who already was a pioneer in the field of highway safety. In welcoming Dr. Haddon, Thomas Morrill of State Farm said, "The ability to bring unbiased scientific data to the table is extremely valuable." This scientific approach, ushered in by Dr. Haddon, is a hallmark of Institute work. It's why the Institute launched the Highway Loss Data Institute in 1972 — to collect and analyze insurance loss results to provide consumers with model-by-model comparisons.
Another Institute milestone was the 1992 opening of the Vehicle Research Center. Since then, the Institute has conducted much of the research that has contributed to safer vehicles on U.S. roads. At the anniversary event, current Institute chairman Gregory Ostergren of American National Property and Casualty summed up a commitment to continue what fellow insurers began in 1959: "On this golden anniversary of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we celebrate this organization's accomplishments toward safer drivers, vehicles, and roadways. We salute the vision of the Institute's founders and proudly continue their commitment to highway safety."
2009 Chevrolet Malibu post-crash
1959 Chevrolet Bel Air post-crash
In the crash test involving the two Chevrolets, the 2009 Malibu's occupant compartment remained intact (above left) while the one in the 1959 Bel Air (right) collapsed.