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Welcome to the Smash Lab: Where Cars Die So You Can Live

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, Virginia, has a history lesson in the lobby. That’s where it displays the 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air that it crashed into a 2009 Chevy Malibu to demonstrate the progress in safety over the past 50 years. The Malibu’s front end is annihilated, but its passenger compartment looks practically undisturbed. The Bel Air, however, looks like it cruised straight out of one of those gruesome old driver’s ed safety videos. Cue the voice-over: “Jimmy was on his way to the prom when he decided to try a little street racing …”

Cars are indisputably safer than ever, and that’s partly thanks to the work at the IIHS. The organization is funded by insurance companies, so its mandate is to identify problems and then essentially shame the manufacturers into fixing them. I’d always assumed that all cars met federal safety regulations, so they must all be somewhat equal on the safety front. Not so. There’s a lot of leeway in the federal standard, a lot of variance between an IIHS Top Safety Pick and a car that wears the dreaded “poor” sticker.


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