The main function of a bumper is to protect the car's body in a slight collision, typically at parking speed. The bumper structure on modern automobiles generally consists of a plastic cover over a reinforcement bar made of steel, aluminum, fiberglass composite, or plastic.

In most jurisdictions, bumpers are legally required on all vehicles. The height and placement of bumpers may be legally specified as well, to ensure that when vehicles of different heights are in an accident, the smaller vehicle will not slide under the larger vehicle. Although a vehicle’s bumper systems should be designed to absorb the energy of low-speed collisions and help protect the car’s safety and other expensive components located nearby, most bumpers are designed to meet only the minimum regulatory standards.

Bumpers are not capable of reducing injury to vehicle occupants in high-speed impacts, but are increasingly being designed to mitigate injury to pedestrians struck by cars, such as through the use of bumper covers made of flexible materials.

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