Jeff Wagg’s article about the extreme lack of casualties on board the AIRES 737 in Columbia brought to mind a similar story from 2009.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was instituted in 1959 to test and promote auto safety.  To celebrate their 50th anniversary they decided to throw a big bash, or rather, a big crash.  They slammed two cars together, which is what they do fairly often.  What made this crash different was that they weren’t testing crash worthyness.  While Mythbusters has shown us that breaking things is fun, that wasn’t the purpose either.  In this case they were doing it to show off.

In an effort to demonstrate the improvements brought about by 50 years of engineering knowledge, they crashed a 1959 Chevy Bel Air into a 2009 Chevy Malibu.  It was a 40mph head on offset driver side crash; which was probably chosen because it allowed the cars to go head to head and see who came out standing.  The cars were both 4-door sedans of roughly the same weight so it wasn’t a David vs. Goliath at least where momentum was concerned. The video to the right shows the crash from several angles, including from inside the cabin.  Watch it, then we’ll continue talking.

Pretty cool huh?  Even cooler are the still images found here of the two cars before and after.  Looking at just the crash test dummies we see the Malibu driver sitting in a generally intact cabin while the Bel Air driver is folded in a way that I suspect even yoga masters would avoid.

However, this isn’t the point of my story.  You see, this is old news.  It happened last year after all.  The point is the discussions that appeared after the video was made public.  I went to view the video on Youtube and saw the different copies have hundreds of comments claiming everything from the Bel Air had the engine removed to the frame of the older car was rusted and simply broke.  Others say that something was done to the Malibu because the new plastic car wouldn’t have a chance against one made of sheet metal.

These conspiracies spread because of what “everyone knows.”  The list of things everyone knows is long and includes things like: Toilets swirl one way in the northern hemisphere and the other way in the southern; Silencers turn the loudest gunshot into a quiet “fffffttt”; that Bogey said “Play it again, Sam”; and, of course, older cars are stronger than newer ones.  But, in all these cases, what “everyone knows” is actually wrong.

The sources of these legends are varied, Hollywood encourages the silencer myth, and some text books mention the toilet swirl.  But the idea that older cars are stronger is one that people can experience first hand.  A gentle press on the side of most modern cars will cause the panel to bend while a good kick to the side of a classic car often leads to little more than a broken toe.  The problem in the case of the cars is the often counter-intuitive nature of engineering.  The fact that the newer car bends more easily is actually what makes it safer.  Lighter cars have less kinetic energy and stop more easily while having the metal bend where the people aren’t makes it less likely to bend where the people are.

I suspect that this conspiracy will fade rather quickly while the JFK, moon hoax, 9/11 truthers will be around for a while.  But the root of all of them is the same and that’s a lack of critical thinking.  I’m of the opinion that the hard core conspiracy theorists are a lost cause, but educating children, not on conspiracies, but on basic critical thinking will cause belief in these stories to die a slow death.  It’s hard to fix our world, but maybe we can keep our children from screwing up theirs quite as badly.