Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 13, 2007

This post has been updated!

Who wins when a 2001 Ford Escort and a 2002 Chevy Cavalier collide?

It's a trick question, you say? No one wins when those two similar-sized cars collide.


Yes, it's not like tractor-trailer vs. motorcycle, where the motorcyclist is lucky if the semi-driver even notices that he's been de-biked. But in this case there is a winner and a loser.

Tuesday, on my way into work I accidentally rear-ended a Ford Escort in my Chevy Cavalier. My fault. The light turned green, everyone started going forward, everyone stopped for some unknown reason-- except me.

Speed at impact: Less than 10 mph. I put it at about 7 mph.

Result: The back bumper of the Ford shatters into a dozen pieces; the license plate falls off. The front bumper of my Chevy crunches inward, the hood buckles, the air bags (both driver and passenger -- although no one was in the passenger seat) go off and the windshield shatters.

Endgame: The Ford drives off. The Chevy is totaled.

You read that right -- a 7 mph crash totaled my car.

I thought I was driving around an economy car. It turns out I was driving around a couple of airbags. Once those airbags went off, all that was left was scrap metal.

So, for Christmas this year, I'm going to be getting a car payment! A used car payment to be exact.

At this point it seems like an opportune time to bang the tip jar, which has been renamed the new, used-car jar for the time being. Links to the Amazon Honor System and Paypal are in the right sidebar. There's also a widget down there for those of you who want to get me something for Christmas -- because there's not going to be any self-gifting going on.

Donations will also go to defray the cost of keeping Hoystory running -- the site's Web hosting bill comes due in January.


I just got finished emptying my personal belongings out of the now-totaled car. I talked with the guy who owns the body shop and he expressed shock that the claims adjuster was totalling the car. He also pointed out to me a design issue with the Chevy Cavalier. Apparently the airbag sensor is placed rather high on the car -- under the hood as opposed to behind the front bumper. When the hood crumpled in a couple of inches, the air bags went off -- unnecessarily. If the sensor had been mounted behind the bumper -- which didn't move much, then the airbags would likely have not gone off and I'd be looking at a $500 deductible and not a new car payment.


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0 comments on “Carmageddon”

  1. I've often noticed that the car that does the rear ending always seems to end up worse off than the rear ender. But that is ridiculous! I thought cars had to be tested at 5mph impacts just for the bumpers, another 2mph suddenly destroys the car? weak. I hope you find a great deal on a (you heard it here first) "brand spanking used" car! When payday comes, I'll drop a (albeit small) drop in the bucket! I love your style and panache, not to mention your ability to hit the nail on the head.

  2. Don: Remember your high school physics. Kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity. So a crash at 7 mph is twice as severe as one at 5 mph.

  3. That sucks, though it makes me feel a little better about my '98 Escort coupe. Just have to be careful to get rear-ended by a Cavalier and not a Suburban. Given what body work costs, it doesn't take much for it to be more than what a >5yo domestic car is worth. Around where I live in Boston it's not hard to find body techs who make 100-150k, and thanks to insurance, that's fairly recession-proof. Then again, it requires a lot more skill than most white-collar jobs.

    The gripe I have with the system is that the ~$2k (or whatever) that they'll pay out when they total your car would not cover replacing the car unless your brother owns a dealership. All reasons why I don't carry collision on my $@#!box. I got rate quotes and did the math and figured I only needed 2-3 years without an accident before I'd have saved more than the policy would ever pay out.

  4. Here's what happened. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies, the car companies discovered fashion -- and the American public discovered why Ankh-Morpork doesn't have a fire department, by orders of the Patrician.

    Fashion caused the car companies to churn out a then-incredible number of new models, all different. Since none of the parts from one would fit another, warehousing costs went up and the price of replacement parts went through the roof. At the same time, people discovered that they could get out from under their car payments, even make a few bucks, by turning in an insurance claim for minor damage. Somebody swung a door into the car in the supermarket parking lot -- *bang* a claim for a couple thousand dollars in repair costs. Then you went to a gypsy who filled the ding with bondo and spraypainted over it, and pocketed the difference.

    The insurance companies started a full-court press, supported by (as usual) the ignorant. Cars should survive minor damage! Parking-lot shunts shouldn't result in totaling the vehicle! The bad old car companies are taking advantage of women and children and little puppies with big eyes! I'm sure you can fill in the details without too much effort. Needless to say, Our Wise Lawmakers saw a bandwagon and jumped on it. It even figured in a minor way in a couple of Presidential campaigns.

    The insurance companies assured us with solemn gravity that eliminating claims for minor damage would reduce our insurance premiums, and that put the campaign over the top. Our Wise Lawmakers enacted requirements for crashworthiness into law, and the (new) National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) specified the tests for it.

    Unfortunately for Our Wise Lawmakers and their cheerleaders, in this country we obey the laws of physics. Vehicles in motion store energy, and the amount of energy is proportional to the square of the speed -- yes, Don, a 7 mph crash has twice the energy of a 5 mph one. What OWL and the ignorant were expecting was that if a car was immune to a 5 mph crash, a 7 mph crash would give slight damage (say, about what the 5 mph one suffered before the changes), and so on proportionately. But the car companies couldn't do that, not because they didn't want to, but because physics wouldn't allow it. Oh, it could have been done, sort of, by making cars out of armor plate -- but then came the Gas Crisis, and mileage became the touchstone. A car that gets good mileage has to be lightweight, and armor plate isn't light. There was no way to build damage-immune cars that were also lightweight, and still isn't.

    What they could do, and did, was build in thresholds. Below the threshold speed, little or no damage. Above it, the energy-absorbing structure fails while still absorbing enough to minimize harm to the people inside, and is destroyed in the process. Structures that can do that can be lightweight. They are also intricate and expensive. A minor shunt only scratches the paint or cracks the plastic housing. Above the limiting point, the structure is destroyed and the car is a total loss from the insurance company's point of view, because it costs more to fix it than the vehicle is worth. That's what happened to your Cavalier, Matt. You could probably strip off the bumpers and energy-absorbing structure, slash the airbags out, and drive the car forever. Replacing the structure and the airbags would cost more than another car like that would cost. That's what "total" means to the insurance company. They will sell the hulk to a gypsy, who will collect undamaged parts from other similar vehicles, rebuild it, and sell it at a profit. (It's very likely that the airbags won't work. You can't exactly test them, after all.)

    And, of course, insurance premiums went up. The saving on minor collisions was more than compensated for by the increased payout for energy-absorbing structures that failed above the threshold speed, because absorbing that much energy is expensive in materials, design effort, and weight -- and that doesn't count the fools who decided that since the car was safe they could do more dangerous things with it.

    Sorry, no hit for the tip jar; if I had a blog I'd be blegging myself :(. It isn't fun to be blindsided by the Law of Unintended Consequences.


  5. Don wrote: I’ve often noticed that the car that does the rear ending always seems to end up worse off than the rear ender. But that is ridiculous!

    Modern cars are designed around the theory that the car is expendable, while the occupants and surrounding cyclists and pedestrians are not. Since the majority of accidents are going to involve some degree of forward motion, and there's a big chunk of engine up there that has very little give to it, the vehicle will normally sustain large amounts of damage for seemingly minor front-end accidents. The front end gives first and the hood is designed to crumple and take the majority of the damage (especially beneficial if a pedestrian has been struck, also reduces the likelihood of the struck object coming through the windshield); at higher velocities, the airbags fire; and if the shock is severe enough, the engine mounts and steering column fail, causing the engine to drop out and the remainder of the car rides up on it, rather than having the passengers crushed by all that inflexible mass.

    It may cause grief for rather light shocks like this one, but OTOH, when I was in high school, a neighborhood girl lost her boyfriend in an accident that would have been survivable in any modern vehicle. He was driving to school against the sunlight in a 60s pickup, and didn't see a flatbed trailer until striking it at about 30-40mph. He was killed because the steering column moved forward and crushed his chest.

  6. I recommend a Nissan Maxima. We're on our second used one and it's great.
    The first one we bought had 200K miles on it, and it went over 100K more miles.
    Doesn't break down like our '91? Explorer, the '99 Honda Oddyssey is even worse.

  7. "There was no way to build damage-immune cars that were also lightweight, and still isn’t."

    Well, there wasn't, and while it's possible now, it isn't yet cost-effective, but, yes, there is: You put the air bags on the *outside* of the vehicle, and let THEM absorb the energy of the collision, before rigid ever meets rigid. And then just replace the airbags.

    This requires sensors keeping track of everything around the vehicle, and a computer projecting paths, and determining when a collision is unavoidable, and the exact moment that the airbags ought to be set off. Entirely feasible from a technological standpoint, and the cost of the system is rapidly dropping.

  8. Another reason that the car doing the rear-ending usually takes the worst of the damage is that in this type of accident both cars are usually braking, which causes the car to nose-dive a bit. That means that the bumper of the car in front meets the hood of the car in back. Bumper wins.

    *bang* a claim for a couple thousand dollars in repair costs. Then you went to a gypsy who filled the ding with bondo and spraypainted over it, and pocketed the difference.

    The last two minor accidents I've been in have resulted in insurance payments of ~$3000, and repair bills of ~$1500. My '97 Camery is now a profit center!

  9. I once rear ended an early 90's Toyota Corrola with '84 Ford LTD. The impact was probably no more than 5 mph, 10 at the top end. I'm not just estimating this. The Ford LTD had no damage. Not even a dent. The insurance agent took pictures to verify this. If it had been much more than 10 mph at the top, there would have been buckling of the body. Even an 84 Ford LTD isn't indestructible. The Corrola however lost its entire rear end right up to the cabin.

    Disposable vehicles.

    There is a theory that they do this to protect the occupants - sacrifice the car to save the passenger. That theory falls flat when you notice that while fatal car crashes are going down as a percentage, the number of impacts which produce serious injuries requiring hospitalization (broken bones, internal trauma, serious concussions) is going up as a percentage of incidents. It seems all those safety features might arguably keep you alive, but they increase the danger in less than fatal situations. Small hits produce large amounts of deformation. Cars are designed to resist an extremely standardized variation in forces and they generally do so at the expense of material that makes the care safer when torqued in some non-standard way. For me the question becomes, how much of the change is improved vehical safety and how much is improved medical practice and emergency responce?

    Whatever the case, disposable vehicles is that they are very good for the automotive industries bottom line. Why sell a single vehical that lasts 20 years, when you can sell one for 80% of the price that lasts 10? Why sell one of those when for 80% of that price, you can sell one that lasts 5?

    Modern cars are far better in almost every way than older cars. I'm not selling 'they don't make 'em like they used to', because they used to suck. But I do think that automotive companies have a vested interest in not making them too good, and I think as always we are dealing in unintended consequences of regulation.

  10. There is another problem that is not discussed. The insurance company needs to declare that the car is totalled and then they can pay a minnime amount and sell the car off and save money. Most companies really on theird party commpanies to determine the worth of the car. (CCC) is one such company. My car was hit by a high speeding motorcycle. The third party companie determined my car's worth by comparing it to an advertised car for sale in a news paper, 150 miles away from Honolulu. (where I live). The paper was from a small rural area and the car was not inspected. Off course the advertixed car was cheap, but in Honolulu that type of car is well respected and the prices are much higher. So who made money off me. The insurance company

  11. At least you are OK pal. As a civil defense attorney, I see a few car accident deaths a year. Glad you are only stuck with a payment.

  12. I was rear-ended hard last year in my '99 Corolla. I was braking suddenly for an unexpected red light in front of a fire station, and the Suburban behind me didn't stop as fast. I wasn't at a full stop yet, but the impact knocked my foot off the brake pedal and it wasn't until I was across the intersection that I managed to stop the car. Fortunately, the fire truck wasn't driving through at the time.

    The Corolla had to have the rear bumper and trunk lid replaced. That was it. I drove it away and took it to the shop the next day. The Suburban, which was braking so it had its 'nose' down close to the ground, had its bumper actually go below mine and took a lot of visible damage to the radiator. They towed it away and I've no idea how bad it was.

    Despite the designed safeguards, it's hard to predict what could happen in an accident. Before that day, I would have bet my car would have been totaled it was in an accident with a Suburban. I still would probably take the bet... but I wouldn't bet as much.

  13. anony-mouse has it right. It's all about saving passenger lives instead of vehicle lives, and it's really very basic physics. I was recently involved in a rear-end collision, and the guy who hit my truck from behind at highway speed was in a small car. His fairly new car was totaled, but he and his family just had some minor bruises. I am pretty sure that if he were driving a similarly sized car from the 70s, his car might not have been totaled, but his family would have been. "Crumple zones" are life saving features, not conspiracies by the greedy auto companies to make more money. Give me a broken bone or a cracked tooth any day over a steering column through the chest or a transmission in the passenger compartment.

  14. My 94 Civic ( NOT fast or furious ) was rearended by a Cavalier at a railroad crossing. I was stopped. She " didn't see the train coming". Good thing she was in that and not a Tahoe. Both her airbags went off. I drove mine 350 miles that day. The hood thing works for me.

  15. My favorite accident story is: me, driving my '73 Volvo down a rather busy, multilaned street in Dallas late at night, versus (memory fails me here) something like a late '70s Chevy Malibu. Something with heft, I mean. I'm in the middle lane of a 3-lane road, and this guy comes rocketing out of a gas station and swerves into my lane. It wasn't quite a sideswipe, but the effect was the same. Given that we were both mildly intoxicated (I think he was actually outright _wasted_), we didn't call the cops, and pled ignorance with our respective insurance companies the next day. On examination of all the evidence (which was mostly composed of our stories and the damage to both our vehicles) the verdict was: I was telling the truth, and everyone in the other guy's car was lying. Lying so badly that they all had different stories, in fact, but the damage was consistent with MY story, so I won. Here's the funny thing: I had been thinking that my little Volvo 142 was just a flimsy little compact car; it didn't weigh much, and it was fairly small. But the damage to my car was just a shallow crease all down the right side, some damage to various sidelights and such, and that's all. Damage to the other guy's car, which was something the hardasses in my high school might have driven, was _extensive_. Basically my car tore up the whole left side of his. I think there were actual sheet metal tears.

    So, yeah, accidents can be unpredictable. It wasn't until a few years later that I read up on those old Volvos, and discovered they were designed to take a hit and live, and take a really hard hit and die horribly in order to save the occupants. Volvo pioneered design of the structure so that it absorbs impact energy through deformation in such a way that the occupants are protected as much as possible. Even later I discovered that there's basically a 3-inch-diameter steel pipe (rather thick-walled) in the middle of the doors, to offer more protection in T-bone accidents. Also, Volvo was one of the first cars to make shoulder harnesses standard equipement. If I could go back and redo that car completely, I would. Except I'd try to install a different fuel pump.

    Nice car, in hindsight. Parts of it broke rather more easily than I preferred, but safety-wise, it was one of the best cars you could get even a decade after it was made.

  16. "I’ve often noticed that the car that does the rear ending always seems to end up worse off than the rear ender."

    That has been my experience. A quarter century ago, I was waiting for a traffic light to change when another vehicle rear-ended me. The other driver then backed up, drove around me, ran the red light, and left the scene at high speed. I presume that he wanted to avoid having to pay for repairs to my car. But the joke was on him. I got out and walked to the rear of my car to assess the damage. There wasn't a scratch on my vehicle, but pieces of the other car's front grill were strewn all over the road.

    Oh, I forgot to mention what I was driving that day. It was a 1976 Ford Pinto. Yep, that's right: I was rear-ended in a Pinto and survived.

  17. We also were in an Escort and two guys were in a Cav, but the driver was drunk at 6:01AM Saturday morning and crossed the median of the Interstate. Both cars were utterly destroyed, all the windows had shattered and the bodies of the cars were crinkled like tin foil.
    It took two rescue teams 29 minutes to extract my pregnant wife and I. The two in the Cav died on scene, we survived except for our unborn daughter, who died from her injuries.
    We're sticking with Ford for the forseeable future. Surviving an accident that kept the interstate closed for 6 hours is something Ford can be proud of.

  18. I drove a Ford Tempo for years, and when it came time to buy a beater car for my teenage daughter, I bought her the same. (she wasn't happy with the choice, but tough) Those cars were built like little tanks, got me anywhere I needed to be, and I walked away from a 5 car pile-up where a taurus wagon rear-ended me, and pushed me into the cars ahead of us. (I was stopped at a redlight). Ford has my vote for safety and reliability.

  19. A few years ago I hit a truck making a blind left turn in front of me. He apparently never saw me due to the large van blocking his view from the left turn on my side.

    I braked and honked and hit the back corner of his bumper at maybe 20-35 mph. His truck was just scratched; no damage (except the gift of some of my car's red paint) probably partly because momentum was transferred and so some collision energy went into moving his rolling truck rather than deforming it.

    Meanwhile, the front bumper of my 2000 Grand Prix shattered into a million pieces, as designed. Airbag did not go off, thankfully. It was a few thousand to replace the bumper. Fortunately, as I have a $1000 deductible, since the other driver was at fault his insurance company picked up the whole thing.

  20. A few years ago, I was rear-ended by an uninsured soccer mom in an SUV (I was, and still am, in a Civic). Even though I'd been at the red light for a good fifteen seconds (enough to not even see her in my mirror when I stopped for the light), she said she "didn't see [me] stop." I didn't know that she was uninsured, as she gave me a policy number and the name of an agent, etc. It wasn't until my insurance company got in the game that we found out that her policy had lapsed for lack of payment about two weeks before.

    As far as the damage, it didn't appear that anything happened to her SUV. My car suffered a crunched back bumper and needed a new trunk lid, but thankfully, my saxophone in there (I'm a musician and educator by trade, and I was traveling between schools at the time of the accident). The worst part was that my insurance company was never able to squeeze a single dime out of that woman, even after a year's worth of work by the subrogation department.

    (Matthew--speaking of saxophone and teaching, I used to teach a Darren Hoy. Any relation?)

  21. Oops, I see that I never finished the one sentence--"my saxophone was not harmed" is what I meant to say. Believe me, I was more concerned about that than I was the condition of the car...

  22. Normally I wouldn't go by a sobriquet rouge, but the outcome of the litigation stemming from my accident is still undecided and you never know when some hard-working junior partner is going to go trolling the interwebs. Anyway, I had an almost identical situation, in which I was stopped in my F150 pickup at a red light, preparing to turn left, traffic started moving and suddenly stopped, and I couldn't get on the binders in time. Went into the back of the sedan in front of me at maybe 5mph. There was a plastic fascia under my bumper that his bumper pushed in, and I cracked his right brake light. That's it.

    And the guy is claiming major injury and suing for something in the middle 5-figures. I guess my insurance company told the guy they'd settle for a few grand, and the guy told them to suck it; the case went into some kind of arbitration, in which I gather the arbitrator told the guy it was worth no more than a few grand, but the guy wouldn't go for that either, so apparently we're moving forward with trial. Color me thrilled. Over a cracked tail light.

    My concern, of course, is that my relatively checkered past (2 or 3 speeding tickets, a reckless driving for passing over a double yellow line (the soccer mom in the van was going HALF the speed limit, and I'd been stuck behind her for 3 miles of country roads), and a DUI from when I was even more of an effing idiot than I am today) is going to come back to haunt me, but I'm pretty sure the facts of the accident aren't disputed by either party; it's just a matter of whether a judge and/or jury will believe that a 5mph accident can cause tens of thousands of dollars of damage to someone's pelvis.

  23. think of it as karma for all your scumbag links on the right...

    Ahhh...the famous tolerance and understanding our counterparts on the left are known for. -Ed.

  24. I'm sorry to hear about your accident, and I'm glad to find out you're okay. I did want to donate a little bit to defray your expenses, but wasn't inclined to "annoy liberals" to do it. May God bless you this Christmas season and into the New Year. Regards, Bing.


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