Modern cars are safe, but higher-speed crashes reveal serious weaknesses

A new study from IIHS and AAA showed driving at 56 mph can be far deadlier for drivers than even 50 mph.

Sean Szymkowski
It all started with Gran Turismo. From those early PlayStation days, Sean was drawn to anything with four wheels. Prior to joining the Roadshow team, he was a freelance contributor for Motor Authority, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports. As for what's in the garage, Sean owns a 2016 Chevrolet SS, and yes, it has Holden badges.
Sean Szymkowski
2 min read

It's absolutely true modern cars are much, much safer than vehicles from even 15 years ago. But just because automakers made massive strides in structural integrity and airbag technology doesn't mean the average car is invincible. This is precisely what a new study, published Thursday, from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and AAA found.

The groups looked at rising speed limits across the country and what it means for the average, modern car, which is about 12 years old in 2021. With a handful of 2010 Honda CR-V crossovers at their disposal, they crash tested them at incremental speed increases. First, a CR-V crashed at 40 mph and it held up well with minimal intrusions in the cockpit. Jumping to 50 mph, the vehicle showed "noticeable deformation" of the driver side door opening, dashboard and foot area. It's precisely what you don't want in the event of a crash as parts and components push inward and threaten occupants. Think of the cockpit, ideally, as a cocoon while the exterior crumples around it.

Keep in mind, in most states, interstate highway speeds are anywhere from 55 mph to 65 mph and climb all the way to 80 mph-plus in eight states. IIHS noted that speed limits do not cap drivers and spoke to the elephant in the room: We tend to go faster than posted speed limits anyway. Those states with 80 mph speed limits likely have drivers doing 90 mph or faster.

In the third and final crash test, the vehicle was sent careening into a wreck at just 56 mph and IIHS noted the CR-V's interior was "significantly compromised." Worse, the crash dummy registered neck injuries and signs of fractured leg bones. With just a 6 mph increase in speed from 50 mph, drivers have a far greater chance at injury.

At both 50 mph and 56 mph, however, steering wheel movement also caused the dummy's head to push through the airbag and its face to collide with the steering wheel. The possibility of facial fractures and "severe brain injury" rated "high risk" at these speeds.

IIHS and AAA urged policymakers to take this into consideration while hashing out regulations or enforcement policies when it comes to speed limits. Drivers should keep it front of mind too: It's easy to forget traveling far beyond a posted speed limit often only results in saving just a few minutes.

A look inside Tesla's Crash Test Lab

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Watch this: Jeep Wrangler rolls during IIHS crash test