1. What function should bumpers serve?
Bumpers should be designed to protect car bodies from damage in low-speed collisions, absorbing crash energy without significant damage to the bumper itself. Low-speed crashes occur by the thousands every day on congested streets and parking lots -- the kind of impacts in which effective bumpers can mean the difference between lots of costly damage and none at all. A 2002 Institute study of vehicles brought to 5 insurance drive-in claims centers in a major metropolitan area found that about 14 percent of all claims for auto damage involve parking lot collisions.
2. What are bumpers made of?
Bumpers on today's cars generally consist of a plastic cover and underneath, a reinforcement bar made of steel, aluminum, fiberglass composite, or plastic. A bumper system also should include mechanisms that compress to absorb crash energy -- polypropylene foam or plastic honeycomb, also called "egg crate," is often used. For a bumper to be effective, there must be some distance between the reinforcement bar and the sheet metal it should protect.
3. Are all bumpers the same?
No. Bumpers vary a lot in terms of both components and performance. This is true among cars of similar size and type and among cars from the same automaker. Some bumper designs put more emphasis on style than protection. For example, some car designers object to bumpers projecting beyond body parts -- sometimes referred to as bumper overhang. As a result, even the most minor collisions can mean expensive damage. Lights built into bumpers may be stylish, too, but they can sustain damage in low-speed crashes.
4. What are 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.
This is equivalent to a 5 mph crash into a parked vehicle of the same weight. The standard requires protection in the region 16 to 20 inches above the road surface and the manufacturer can provide the protection by any means it wants. For example, some vehicles do not have a solid bumper across the vehicle, but meet the standard by strategically placed bumper guards and corner guards.
5. Are all vehicle classes required to meet the Federal bumper standard?
No. The Federal bumper standard does not apply to sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans, or pickups trucks. The agency has chosen not to regulate bumper performance or elevation for these vehicle classes because of the potential compromise to the vehicle utility in operating on loading ramps and off road situations.
6. Are bumpers on new cars better than those on older models?
Generally no. Bumpers used to be stronger. The first federal standards prohibited damage to safety-related equipment in low-speed crashes. Next came a property damage standard, effective for 1979 models that prohibited damage except to bumpers and their attachments in 5 mph flat-barrier tests. Cars made during the 1980-82 model years prohibited all but minor cosmetic damage to the bumper itself in 5 mph tests. The result was bumpers that protected cars from damage in many low-speed collisions, meaning lower and less frequent repair bills.
The 1981 Ford Escort is a good example. Its bumpers not only withstood front- and rear-into-flat-barrier Institute crash tests at 5 mph without damage as required by the federal standard then in effect, but also sustained no damage in two more demanding 5 mph tests, front-into-angle-barrier and rear-into-pole. Many recent models, on the other hand, have sustained more than $1,000 damage in such tests. One notable exception is the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle, the best performer in terms of bumper performance since the 1981 Escort. The New Beetle sustained no damage in rear-into-full-width flat barrier and rear-into-pole impacts at 5 mph, and sustained only minor damage in the front-into-flat barrier and front-into-angle-barrier tests at the same speed.
7. What happened to tougher bumper performance standards?
In 1982, the federal government bowed to pressure from automakers and rolled back impact test requirements from 5 to 2.5 mph for 1983 and later model cars. The 2.5 mph standard also allows unlimited damage to the bumper and attachments. The principal argument used to justify the rollback of federal requirements was that 2.5 mph bumpers would weigh less -- thus reduce gas consumption -- and would cost $18-35 (1982 dollars) less per car. The government argued that consumers would spend more money on a car with 5 mph bumpers and on gas than they would save from lower repair bills. In fact, Institute testing has repeatedly shown that bumper performance is not related to weight. Some good bumpers weigh considerably less than some poor bumpers. And many of today's flimsy bumpers cost considerably more than the old 5 mph bumpers.
8. Does the current standard cover all vehicles?
Federal bumper requirements apply only to passenger cars. There are no federal standards for vans, pickup trucks, or SUVs.
9. What is a 5 mph bumper?
Five miles per hour is a benchmark, an impact speed at which bumpers could easily -- but generally don't -- prevent all but very minor cosmetic damage in barrier tests. The "5 mph" label doesn't mean that in real, as opposed to test, crashes the bumper would prevent damage only at speeds slower than 5 mph. Institute tests show 5 mph bumpers reduce repair costs in 10 and 15 mph crashes, too.
10. Should bumpers be more effective?
Absolutely. Consumers want stronger bumpers and they want them on all vehicle types. In a 1998 Institute survey, 77 percent of respondents said the government should require car bumpers to withstand a 5 mph impact with no damage. Eighty-eight percent said federal bumper standards should apply to all passenger vehicle types, not just cars.
11. Have manufacturers begun to improve bumper performance?
Some have. For example, the 1997 Saturn SL2 sustained no damage in a 5 mph rear-into-pole impact and minor damage in the front and rear full-width flat barrier tests, a significant improvement over the 1993 Saturn. The 1993 Toyota Camry was by far the worst performer among a group of midsize sedans the Institute tested that year. By the 1995 model year, the Camry had improved to about average, and the redesigned 1997 model was among the best performers in the same tests. Improvements in bumper performance also occurred for the 1999 Hyundai Elantra and 1998 Volkswagen Passat, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon, and Lexus LS400, compared with 1995-97 models of the same cars. (All except the Passat's bumper improvements were made independent of complete vehicle redesign.) Mazda quickly improved the rear bumper on its 2000 Protege, after the 1999 model performed quite poorly in the Institute's rear-into-pole test. And Hyundai improved the bumpers yet again on the Elantra when the car was redesigned for 2001.
12. How much do repairs cost?
Because of flimsy bumpers, damage sustained in low-speed collisions can translate into major repair bills. In Institute tests of five 2002-2003 small and midsize passenger cars of various prices, damage repairs from backing into a pole ranged from $322 to $1,460 (October 2002 costs). Total damage in four tests ranged from $865 for the Audi A4 to $4,525 for the Suzuki Aerio. Institute crash tests of four 2002-2003 small SUVs showed them to have much more damage -- from $271 to $2,727 in the rear-into-pole test and from $717 to $1,165 in the front-into-angle barrier test (October 2002 costs). Total damage in the four tests ranged from $1,457 (Subaru Forester) to $6,607 (Honda CR-V).
13. How do bumpers affect insurance costs?
Bumpers play a significant role in insurance costs because so many physical damage claims are for relatively small amounts of damage involving the front or rear of vehicles -- damage that a well designed bumper could prevent. For example, half of all collision claims for new model cars are $1,500 or less. Repair costs for these minor incidents are a major factor in overall collision coverage insurance costs.
14. How can consumers tell if a car has a good bumper?
Consumers cannot tell a good bumper from a bad one by looking at it. The federal government does not require automakers to disclose information about bumper performance. Only California and Hawaii have bumper disclosure laws; manufacturers who advertise in these states that they exceed the federal standard must be specific about the speed at which they provide protection. Many manufacturers voluntarily include bumper performance information on window stickers of new passenger cars sold in the United States. The Institute conducts four 5 mph crash tests to assess bumper performance: front-into-flat-barrier, rear-into-flat-barrier, front-into-angle-barrier, and rear-into-pole. These low-speed tests reflect the range of impacts that frequently occur in commuter traffic and parking lots.