​They don’t make ‘em like they used to (thank goodness for that)

Nov 24th, 2015

The story behind five decades of vehicle-safety progress

Progressive’s Mike Doerfler has one of the more unusual displays of office décor. Aside a piece from Progressive’s corporate art collection and some personal souvenirs on his bookshelf, Mike displays photos of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) automobile crash tests.

One photo shows the aftermath of one of the organization’s most famous tests: a head-on collision between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. At first glance, both cars appear badly damaged. A closer look shows the passenger compartment of the heavier, mostly-steel Bel Air is destroyed; the poor test dummy crushed like an empty pop can. The passenger compartment of the lighter, modern Malibu is largely intact; the dummy looks like it could hop out and walk away.

While some may pine for the classic lines of the Bel Air, I know which car I’d rather use for shuttling my kids around.

Car safety has come a long way in the last half century, and we have IIHS to thank for advocating a lot of meaningful change.

A unique insight

As part of his job as a product development manager on Progressive’s R&D team, Mike is a board member of IIHS’ partner organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).

Major auto insurers, including Progressive, are the primary source of funding for these non-profit organizations and have a seat on their boards. As such, Mike has insight into vehicle-safety technology trends that relatively few outside the auto industry and auto media have. (And, he chooses to decorate his office a little differently than other Progressive employees.)

Independent research and influence

“IIHS started in 1959 with a mission of supporting highway safety,” said Mike, “and evolved into an independent research organization. It’s funded by the insurance industry and isn’t a lobbying group. But, it works with both the government and car and parts manufacturers. HLDI came along in 1972 as an arm of IIHS. The IIHS does the more qualitative research, while HLDI performs more quantitative research, using a ton of data provided to it by insurance companies.”

IIHS also provides the crash test videos you see on the news and online, along with its “Top Safety Picks” and other research publications. In 2013, its website was visited by 4.6 million visitors, and its studies were mentioned more than 5,000 times on television. Mike said, “Manufacturers know the impact and influence that these videos can have on consumer opinion, so they do try to work closely with IIHS/HLDI to make cars safer.”

That impact and influence has been key in the evolution represented by the Bel Air and the Malibu.

The organizations’ combined influence has played a role in many of the safety technologies we take for granted today, but that simply didn’t exist in cars before the 1960s: more effective bumpers, safer fuel systems, airbags, safer traffic signals, head restraints, and frontal crash protection, to name a few. They’ve also been involved with regulatory efforts like graduated licensing and distracted driving laws.

Evolving technology, evolving focus

IIHS/HLDI’s research focus is constantly evolving as cars and technology evolve. Today, the organization is working with manufacturers and regulators to advance crash avoidance technology. In the second part of this series, I’ll talk to Mike about a few of those technologies starting to appear in cars today, or that are coming down the pike in the next few years.