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Today’s pickup trucks are some of the safest vehicles on the road. Most earn excellent scores from the IIHS, or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for crashworthiness. But that wasn’t always the case. Pickup truck safety wasn’t a priority until it had to be.

On Sept. 25, 1999, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration instituted a rule that said light trucks and vans had to meet the same safety standards as cars. Before that, they didn’t. Trucks were unsafe in the 1990s and before.

Old trucks are cool, but pickup truck safety wasn’t a priority

A Black 1992 Ford Nite F-150
1998 Ford F-150

Before 1999, many trucks were notoriously unsafe.

There was a time when pickup trucks were not required to have airbags, when their frames cracked like burned cookies in a 12-mile-per-hour crash test, and when crash test dummies had their heads ripped off. And that time wasn’t that long ago.

It wasn’t until 1999 that light pickups started to follow federal safety standards. Prior to 1999 trucks were treated very much like tractors by the NHTSA. That meant that most trucks and vans didn’t meet safety standards that even the cheapest economy cars had to follow. Trucks like the Ford F-150 follow a safety standard, applying top-notch safety features and technologies to improve safety for drivers and passengers alike. As a result, crash-test ratings for trucks continue to get better each year.

30 years ago, pickup truck safety was an oxymoron

1998 truck test crash

The 1998 Ford F-150 Extended Cab Pickup, for example, was rated as Poor for crashworthiness by the IIHS because they didn’t meet the same standards as cars. Today, it rates a XXX. Overall, the ’99 was rated poor. Its structure and safety cage was poor. It was rated poor for head and neck injuries. After a crash test, IIHS said, “The driver seat was tilted so far forward that the dummy’s head was confined to a narrow space between the steering wheel and head restraint during much of the crash.” Yeeeoww.

Almost every full-size, and many other compact, trucks 30 years ago didn’t fare well, either. Many manufacturers started adding airbags and much more before the feds required it.

Since the truck was required to meet the federal regulations, Ford engineers went to work. The 2022 F-150 is rated “Good,” the highest rating, in almost every category IIHS tests. Overall, the 2021-2-22 F-150 is ranked “Superior” by the IIHS.

It wasn’t just pickup truck safety that was an afterthought

It wasn’t until 1996 that the Department of Transportation even proposed updating the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for light trucks. In 1996 the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a combined standard of 20.6 mpg for model year 1998. That meant that the average fuel consumption of all trucks in a manufacturers combined had to be at 20.6 mpg. So, that meant the Ford had to sell a lot of fuel-efficient Rangers to offset the thirsty F-350.

But it was pickup truck safety standard updates in 1999 that made a difference and have likely saved thousands of lives.

RELATED: The Humble History of the Crash Test Dummy


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