The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety describes itself as "an independent, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization." It is dedicated to reducing the losses (deaths, injuries and property damage) caused by crashes on the nation's highways.

Inasmuch as the IIHS is funded by the insurance industry, there is a natural suspicion that the institute might have a pro-industry bias. I have looked for bias in IIHS activities and publications but have found only a bias toward reducing the number of people who smash up their automobiles and their bodies.

This is a bias I share. I have been reading IIHS reports for decades and find them informative, reliable and useful.

For example, in its latest report, IIHS tells what happened when it tested the bumper systems on four popular new subcompacts: the Ford Mustang, the Ford Escort, the Plymouth Reliant and the Toyota Corolla Tercel. No General Motors car in this class was tested because the Chevrolet Chevette "was tested before and is about to be phased out. Its successor in the GM lineup, the 'J' car, is not yet available for sale."

All four of the models tested have been certified by their manufacturers to meet the standard of sustaining no damage in a 5 mph frontal barrier crash and a 3 mph corner pendulum impact. However, IIHS has for many years been testing bumpers and complaining that they are inadequate. You can judge the merit in its position for yourself.

At 5 mph, the tests made were: "front into barrier, front into angle barrier, rear into pole, front into rear and front into side." At 10 mph, IIHS tested only for damage when the front end was run into a barrier or into the rear of another car.

Which make sustained the least total damage in all seven tests? Was it the Japanese car, which is supposed to be better constructed than American cars?

No, the Toyota sustained the greatest damage -- $1,879 worth. Ford's Escort was low with $815, Ford's Mustang was next with $953, and the Plymouth suffered $1,001 in damage. Backing these four cars into a pole at 5 mph proved to be an interesting category. The Escort's bumpers prevented damage entirely; the Mustang's permitted $53 worth of damage to be inflicted, the Plymouth suffered $90 worth and the Toyota $149. In the "front into side crash" at 5 mph, the Plymouth was low with $221 and the Toyota was high with $415. In the "front into barrier" test at 10 mph, the Mustang was low with $380 and the Toyota was high with $1,030.

Few people will decide to buy one make of car and reject another solely on the basis of bumper tests. But the tests do serve at least three useful purposes.

They focus attention on the fact that after years of consumer complaints, the design of most auto bumpers remains too oriented to appearance rather than effectiveness in reducing damage.

They remind us of the horrendous cost of repairing any auto these days.

The results offer an opportunity for contemplation: If it costs $149 to back into a pole or a tree at 5 mph, what does it cost when two cars collide at five times that speed -- or when one car runs off the road at 11 times 5 mph and strikes a tree, wall, abutment or other fixed object?

Anything that causes Americans to drive more carefully has my approval, even if it is an educational campaign sponsored by biased insurance companies that would like to pay out less in claims.

If the amount paid out in damage claims ever begins to diminish, the premiums charged for auto insurance will also begin to drop. Competition will force premiums down. And more of us will be alive to benfit from them.

Remember this: It is possible for a driver to walk away from a crash in which his vehicle has been damaged beyond repair; but he can't walk away from a crash in which his body has been damaged beyond repair. Never mind the cost of repairing a Toyota; what's the cost of slaughtering a thousand people a week by auto?