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Status Report, Vol. 44, No. 9 | October 13, 2009 Subscribe

Test compares crashworthiness then and now

In the 50 years since U.S. insurers organized the Institute, 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. The Malibu's structure held up well while the Bel Air's collapsed around the driver dummy. Injury measures recorded on the dummy in the Malibu were good except for a possible left foot injury, while a driver in a real-world crash of the Bel Air would suffer serious, if not fatal, injuries.

"It was night and day, the difference in these cars," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "The test shows that automakers don't build cars like they used to. They build them better."

Chevrolet Malibu
Chevrolet Bel Air

Survival space: 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.

The 40 mph frontal offset crash test was conducted at an event to celebrate the contributions of auto insurers to highway safety over 50 years. Beginning with the Institute's 1959 founding, insurers have maintained their 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."

Every aspect of the Institute's work over 50 years has reflected this founding principle. The public health goal today, as it was in 1959, is to prevent the harm associated with motor vehicle crashes.

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 to the Institute, 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, has been a hallmark of Institute work ever since. It's why the Institute launched the Highway Loss Data Institute in 1972 — to collect and analyze insurance loss results and 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 last month's event, current Institute chairman Gregory Ostergren of American National Property and Casualty summed up a commitment to continue what 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."


The Institute's 50th anniversary celebration featured a tribute by Virginia State Police superintendent Stephen Flaherty (above left) and presentation of an honorary Top Safety Pick award to former Institute president Brian O'Neill (above right).

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