Deep in the public archives of The Department of Transportation, you can find thousands of old films of some classic 70’s and 80’s cars being smashed into smithereens. I went through and collected some of the most interesting vehicle crash test films featuring these cars, and threw them together in this six minute video.
The NHTSA Vehicle Crash Test Database
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a part of the The Department of Transportation, and is tasked with overseeing everything to do with motor vehicle safety: seatbelts, airbags, car seats and recalls. Created after the passage of the Highway Safety Act in 1970, the agency is “responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes.”
In 1978, the NHTSA conducted its first frontal crash test, driving a car 35 miles per hour into a concrete barrier. Since then, an array of other crash tests, such as side-impacts and rollovers have been added to the mix, and all new cars sold in the U.S. are subject to this testing from the NHTS, to ensure that vehicles meet safety regulations.
For these early tests, the cars are wired up with sensors, accelerometers and other instruments to record the forces inside the vehicle as it collides with the barrier, or other vehicles. Dummies were strapped into the seats and film cameras from several different angles capture the crash at high-speed so the engineers can review the damage that happens in slow motion.
The NHTSA has a fantastic database of each of these crash tests going back to the beginning of the program in the late 1970’s. The database has 8,585 crash tests, including PDFs of the detailed test results, and in many cases photos and videos of the tests. In this database, you will find crash test data for Winnebagos, Yugos, Deloreans, trucks, buses, SUVs and sub-compact cars –785 models from 87 different car manufacturers from 1965 through 2022.
The Impala versus The Rabbit
I always love going back to see what the earliest data looks like. Much credit to the NHTSA for keeping such a thoroughly detailed archive. Let’s take a look at one early test to see what they entailed.
It is really wild to be able to go back and read a report filled with accelerometer data recorded inside a 1976 VW Rabbit (the “target” vehicle) when a 1978 Chevy Impala (the “bullet” vehicle) slams into it at 30 miles per hour at an oblique angle on a snow day in Buffalo, NY on 1978.
These were extremely thorough tests, reflected by a 136 page report hand drawn diagrams indicating the damage to each vehicle, the amount of force applied to each seatbelt, and the exact placement of each sensor and high speed camera.
Limited computing power and the technical limitations of sensors at the time required vehicles to be trailed by a mass of thick electrical cables sending data back to data recorders (using magnetic tape).
In this Impala vs. Rabbit test, nine high-speed film cameras were deployed to capture the crash – three on board, and six placed at different heights and angles around the crash zone. Camera captures rates ranged from 800 to 1,020 frames per second. It was also captured at a real time speed of 24 frames per second.
Watching these old cars from the 70’s and 80’s I was struck by how far we have come in the safety of car designs. These cars were made of heavy steel frames, and the vast majority of these cars did not have airbags, or even safety glass. The 1978 Lincoln Continental is built like a tank.
The interior shots of the dummies getting throttled by these impacts are terrifying. The dummies in these films regularly smash into the dashboard or windshield, leaving behind a red or blue chalk mark where their face impacted.
While the destruction in these films is violent and jarring, I am always a sucker for the glitchy artifacts and faded pastel palettes of 8mm and 16mm film from this era, having been obsessed with making ridiculous movies with my friends with my Super 8 camera as a kid in the 80's.
I do find these films kind of beautiful in a weird way. I’m grateful for the NHTSA keeping these fascinating tests available to the public, and also running these rigorous tests which have helped make the cars we drive today so much safer.
For this post, scraped all of the data from the NHTSA's website (using
curl, to get some numbers for scale of data. You can find my CSV of this database in a GitHub repo here.
I made a Jupyter notebook to get some basic numbers for the distinct number of tests and unique models in the dataset. I also sorted the cars by weight, and found the heaviest vehicle was this bus and wow that crash is wild.
I batch converted the crash videos from
.AVI format to
ffmpeg using this command:
ffmpeg -i v01332C001.avi -vcodec libx264 -vprofile high -crf 28 -acodec copy v01332C001.mp4
I then edited the videos in Adobe Premiere.
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Thanks for reading!
- Jon Keegan (@jonkeegan)