If you’ve owned or driven a car, you could undoubtedly give a basic explanation of what a bumper is. But you might not realize there’s more to it.

What Is a Car Bumper?
Car bumpers feature protruding shrouds of plastic or metal, called bumper covers, that surround energy-absorbing materials. They are designed to absorb impact to the front and rear of vehicles and minimize low-speed collision damage.
Vehicle bumpers have a rigid reinforcing bar under the outer cover, with sections of compressible foam or plastic underneath. In North America, passenger car bumpers must absorb an eight kph (five mph) impact from another vehicle with no damage to the car body. The foam or plastic makes this possible. At impact, that material squishes down between the reinforcing bar and the vehicle’s body.

History and Evolution
Bumpers used to contain more impact-absorbing material, but vehicle manufacturers lobbied for lighter weight designs to improve fuel efficiency. Today’s vehicles aren’t required by law to have protruding bumpers, but they are much safer.

Though regulations specify the bumper height and impact resistance, not all car bumpers are the same. Here are the basic types.

  • Standard Bumper:  Common on passenger vehicles. It has no steps or hitches, just a paint-matched plastic cover containing energy absorbing mechanisms.
  • Step Bumper: SUVs, trucks and some cars have bumpers with a step-shaped cutout in the center, just below the license plate. These bumpers often have holes for the installation of ball hitches.
  • Cowboy Bumper: These tall, heavy-duty bumpers usually have chrome plating and are most often seen on older trucks. They’re made to be noticed and tow heavy trailers.
  • Tube Bumper: Typically installed on jeeps and lifted trucks, tube bumpers forgo the plastic-shroud. Instead, they rely on a frame of heavy-duty steel tubing to lessen collision damage.

Repairing and Replacing Bumpers
If you’re involved in a collision that damages the inner structure of your bumper, get it replaced by a professional. Full bumper replacements aren’t cheap but without the full capacity for energy absorption, you’re vulnerable to much greater damage and injury in case your vehicle hits something. You can easily repair your bumper cover’s paint if it’s just scratched; patch and repaint it if it’s a small puncture, or install a replacement cover if the damage is too severe to fix.