Safety Agency: Small Cars Don't Fare Well in Crashes with Larger Cars

Posted: April 14, 2009

Size matters.  At least, it matters in car crashes.  According to one of the leading automotive safety agencies, this simple truth means that crash test scores can easily be misunderstood.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an automotive safety lab funded by a consortium of insurance companies, has announced the results of a series of tests in which small and midsize cars were crashed into one another.  The results were significantly different than what standard crash tests of the same cars showed.  Edmunds Inside Line explains, "The IIHS performed car-to-car crash tests between the 2009 Toyota Camry and Yaris, the 2009 Honda Accord and Fit and the 2009 Mercedes-Benz C300 and Smart Fortwo. While all vehicles performed relatively well in the institute's frontal offset barrier test, all three small cars received poor ratings in the crash tests with midsize cars."

In a press release, Institute explains, "The Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo, and Toyota Yaris are good performers in the Institute's frontal offset barrier test, but all three are poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars." 

Crash tests don't necessarily replicate real-world accidents, according to Autoblog.  "The problem is that crash tests are done by slamming a car into a standardized barrier, while accidents in the real world don't generally involve impacts with standardized barriers."  The barrier replicates the effects of a car hitting a car of its own size and weight.  In traffic, cars of different size are more likely to collide than cars of similar size.  A larger car will push a smaller car during impact, meaning that most of the forces of the accident will transfer onto occupants of the smaller car.

The Institute's press release adds, "Crash statistics confirm this. The death rate in 1-3-year-old minicars in multiple-vehicle crashes during 2007 was almost twice as high as the rate in very large cars."  The release continues, "Yet another claim is that minicars are easier to maneuver, so their drivers can avoid crashes in the first place. Insurance claims experience says otherwise. The frequency of claims filed for crash damage is higher for mini 4-door cars than for midsize ones."

The Institute, however, doesn't argue that automakers should avoid building minicars for safety reasons.  Instead, the group supports an Obama administration plan to set fuel economy targets for each class of car, rather than for an automaker's entire fleet.  "This system will mandate lower fuel consumption as cars get smaller and lighter, thus removing the incentive for automakers to downsize their lightest vehicles to comply. It also could mean that technology currently used to enhance horsepower would go instead to reduce gas consumption - a direct safety benefit because less powerful cars have lower crash rates," they note.

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