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Why do fender benders cost so much?

Federal regulations require all car bumpers to be 16 to 20 inches off the ground. But these rules don't apply to SUVs, pickups, and minivans. The result? Costly fender benders.
This Nissan Altima, left, sustained a total of $4,507 damage when it struck the back of a Nissan Murano at 10 mph.
This Nissan Altima, left, sustained a total of $4,507 damage when it struck the back of a Nissan Murano at 10 mph.IIHS
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There’s a reason cars have bumpers. They’re designed to absorb the impact of a minor crash to prevent damage to fenders, grilles, headlights, taillights, and other expensive parts. For this to work, bumpers on both vehicles must be the same height.

That’s why federal regulations require all car bumpers to be 16 to 20 inches off the ground.

But federal bumper regulations do not apply to SUVs, pickups, and minivans. Without a regulatory height requirement, the bumpers on these vehicles tend to be higher than car bumpers. It makes them look more sporty and rugged. But in a crash — even at low speeds — these higher bumpers often ride over the car bumpers and cause more damage to both vehicles.

“What should be a no-damage bump turns into a thousand dollar repair job,” says John Karp, a claims analyst with PEMCO insurance in Seattle.

According to Karp, if an SUV or pickup bumps into a car in a parking lot at just a half mile an hour and hits the headlight assembly rather than the bumper, the repair bill could run $2,000. “That’s terrible,” he says. “There’s something wrong with the way the system is set up.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety wants bumper rules to apply to all passenger vehicles, including SUVs, pickups, and vans. The Institute recently petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to amend the federal bumper standards.

“If bumpers actually bumped into each other rather than the soft part of cars, we’d have less damage out there,” says Adrian Lund, president of IIHS. He estimates the savings would be in the billions of dollars a year.

Crash tests prove the point
In its petition to the federal government, IIHS provides the results of a series of SUV-to-car crashes. In each case, a midsize SUV hits the back of a midsize car at 10 miles per hour.

One of the sport utility vehicles, the 2008 Ford Explorer, caused less damage to the passenger car than the Hummer H3, Jeep Grand Cherokee, or Mitsubishi Endeavor. The Explorer also had a lower repair bill than the other three SUVs.

Why the difference? The bumpers on the Explorer are the same height as the car bumpers, so they match up on impact. This protects both vehicles. The higher bumpers on the 2008 H3, Grand Cherokee, and Endeavor overrode the car’s back bumper and caused significantly more damage to both vehicles.

The Insurance Institute says the same thing happens in real world crashes. From 2005 to 2007, the Hummer H3, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Mitsubishi Endeavor had some of the highest insurance claims for collision damage. The Ford Explorer had lower-than-average damage claims during those same years.

Not a new issue
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, calls the IIHS petition a great idea that is long overdue. “The wonderful thing about the Insurance Institute is they have documented crash tests showing the costs of bumper mismatch, Ditlow says. “That’s something that’s very hard to dodge or sweep under the carpet.”

The Consumer Federation of American also supports the idea of uniform bumper height. “This is one of the reasons for the increase in auto insurance premiums,” notes Jack Gillis, CFA’s Director of Consumer Affairs. “As consumers increase their deductibles to cope with rising insurance rates, more and more of the minor accident repairs come out of their pockets.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will not comment on the IIHS petition, but it has rejected similar petitions twice before. On its website, the agency says it decided not to regulate bumper performance or elevation for minivans, SUVs, or light trucks because of “potential compromise to the vehicle utility in operating on loading ramps and off-road situations.”

The Insurance Institute insists the new bumper requirements would not reduce the performance or utility of these vehicles. In its petition IIHS points to the Ford Explorer which has lower bumpers and still performs well on loading ramps and off road.

“This is an appearance issue not a functional issue,” says IIHS President Adrian Lund.

Will manufacturers fight the insurance industry’s petition? Wade Newton with Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers tells me they have not taken a position on the issue at this time.

My two cents
Everyone agrees bumper incompatibility drives up the cost of auto insurance. It also increases business for collision repair shops and makes money for automakers who sell replacement parts. But it hurts the average consumer in the pocketbook.

Why don’t federal bumper standards apply to SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks? Because, believe it or not, the federal government does not consider them to be passenger vehicles. I’m not kidding!

Has anyone at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration been on the road in the last 15 years? SUVs, minivans, and pickups are passenger vehicles and they need to be regulated as such. It’s time for NHTSA to wake up, get in gear, and fix this problem.

More information

IIHS report on Bumpers (pdf file)