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When a fender bender can break the bank

Tara Baukus MelloWhether you are driving in stop-and-go traffic or parallel parking, a simple bump of your car's bumper into another vehicle should result in almost no damage. Unfortunately, if the minor collision is between a car and a crossover utility vehicle or a sport utility vehicle, that fender bender could result in thousands of dollars in damage. Instead of being protected from this costly collision, consumers are faced with paying for repairs out of pocket or making an insurance claim, which then goes on their driving record.

This costly mistake is because bumpers of cars and those of SUVs, CUVs and pickups don't align well. Bumpers of these vehicles don't align because there are different federal standards for the vehicle types. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, or IIHS, petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to change the regulations in July 2008, but as of yet, no change has been made.

It's not unusual for mismatched bumpers to result in thousands of dollars of repairs to both vehicles involved. The IIHS recently conducted bumper crash tests at 10 mph with some popular models of cars, SUVs and CUVs. It found the cost of repairs to the cars tested ranged from $1,274 to $5,203, while the cost of the repairs to the SUVs and CUVs tested ranged from $850 to $6,015.

Until federal regulators address car-SUV bumper compatibility, consumers will be faced with the potential for expensive fender benders that would have resulted in little or no cost had the impact been with another vehicle type. Here are three tips to protect yourself on the road.

Leave extra space. Most drivers travel too close to the car in front of them, making it hard to stop in time. Leave some extra distance between your front bumper and the car in front of you to help avoid a fender bender should traffic slow suddenly. Pay extra attention and leave even more space when there's glare on your windshield or when the roads are slick. Allow at least two car lengths when driving around town and at least four car lengths on the highway.

Use the collision warning system if your car has one. Many cars on the road today have some form of collision warning system that can help prevent a minor collision, but only if the driver uses it. The simplest systems offer audible tones that warn when the car's bumpers are close to another object. Other systems have backup cameras that provide visual cues as well as audible warnings. Both systems help in the types of collisions that typically happen in parking lots. The most sophisticated systems can intervene on the driver's behalf and apply the brakes to prevent a collision on the road at higher speeds.

Buy a car that has lower bumper costs. When you are ready to replace your current car, make note of the IIHS bumper evaluations, which are crash tests that asses damage and provide a rating based on repair costs. Since you are likely to experience a minor bumper collision at least once during your ownership, selecting a car with the best IIHS rating could mean saving thousands in repairs.

If you do have a fender bender, always exchange insurance information, even if both parties think there's minimal damage and they'll take care of repairs themselves. This way, you will have recourse through your insurance company should you find yourself faced with a big repair bill.

Ask the adviser

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.
 

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