Consumers who buy minicars to economize on fuel are making a big tradeoff when it comes to safety in collisions, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Institute said that crash dummies in all three models tested — the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris and the Smart Fortwo — fared poorly in the collisions. By contrast, the midsize models into which they crashed fared well or at least acceptably. Since both the minicars and midsize cars were traveling 40 miles per hour, the crash occurs at 80 mph.
The Institute concluded that while driving smaller and lighter cars saves fuel, “downsizing and down-weighting is also associated with an increase in deaths on the highway,” according to Adrian Lund, the Institute’s president. The Institute did not quantify how many more highway deaths might be expected statistically from any increase in the use of minicars. The Institute usually tests cars individually, but in this case paired the Honda Fit with a Honda Accord, the Toyota Yaris with a Toyota Camry and the Smart Fortwo with a Mercedes C-Class. While the argument over weight versus safety is not a new one, it took on greater significance when gasoline prices rose sharply last year, making minicars more popular. Consumers are urged to seek out vehicles that burn less fuel so they will contribute less to global warming. Production of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, is proportional to fuel use, and the Smart claims to be the highest-mileage car powered by gasoline on the American market.
When the Institute crashed the Smart into the Mercedes C-Class sedan, the Smart — which weighs half as much as the sedan — went airborne and spun around one and a half times. The Institute’s crash laboratory did not clock the speed of the rebound, but calculated that in a collision between cars of that weight, the sedan would slow down by 27 mph while the two-seater would change speed by 53 mph, moving backward at 13 mph. The Institute suggested steps that would further both fuel economy and safety rather than put them in conflict (i.e., cutting the speed limit and reducing horsepower). But there appears to be little support for either of those proposals.
Some car efficiency experts have recommended making cars light but also large, with energy-absorbing crush zones. With several feet of car body in front of the driver, the energy of a crash can be dissipated and the suddenness of the change in velocity can be reduced.
Source: New York Times
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