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The super-high efficiency minicar has become the Holy Grail for many
environmentalists. But on Tuesday, a new study on minicar safety tossed
some cold water on the dream. The Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety (IIHS) reported that in a series of test crashes between
minicars and midsize models, minis such as the Smart car provided
significantly less protection for their passengers.
The tests did not involve the much ballyhooed mismatches between
subcompacts and Hummers, but measured the effect of relatively modest
differences in size and weight. Even though the Smart car and other
minis such as the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris have fared relatively
well in single-car crash tests, they performed poorly in these two-car
frontal offset collisions. In the words of IIHS president Adrian Lund,
"though much safer than they were a few years ago, minicars as a group
do a comparatively poor job of protecting people in crashes, simply
because they're smaller and lighter."
That difference is reflected in the real world. The death rate in
minis in multi-vehicle crashes is almost twice as high as that of large
cars. And in single-vehicle crashes, where there's no oversized second
vehicle to blame, the difference is even greater: Passengers in minis
suffered three times as many deaths as in large cars.
Given the nonstop pronouncements we've been hearing about the green
promise of high-efficiency cars, these results were shocking to some.
But not to IIHS. The Institute has long been reporting similar results
from other tests, and its publications candidly advise that, when it
comes to safety, larger and heavier cars are generally better.
That's not what advocates of higher fuel-economy standards want to
hear. Greater weight may increase crashworthiness, but it also
decreases miles per gallon, so there's an inevitable trade-off between
safety and efficiency. A 2002 National Research Council study found
that the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards
contributed to about 2,000 deaths per year through their restrictions
on car size and weight. But amazingly, with the exception of IIHS,
there's practically no one else providing information on the
- Not the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
which has a highly dubious track record on CAFE. In a 1992 lawsuit
filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Consumer Alert, a
federal appeals court found the agency guilty of using "mumbo jumbo"
and "legerdemain" to conceal CAFE's lethal effects.
- Not the Environmental Protection Agency, which is about
to become a major partner in setting CAFE standards. EPA is often
fixated on minute risks, such as radon in drinking water, but don't
expect it to admit to CAFE's dangers. Its official mission may be "to
protect human health and the environment," but its operating philosophy
seems to be "not necessarily in that order."
- Not Ralph Nader and his allied traffic safety groups,
which are often CAFE's most energetic cheerleaders. Decades ago, Mr.
Nader and his colleagues repeatedly warned of the hazards of small
cars. The Center for Auto Safety's 1972 book "Small -- On Safety,"
noted "the inherent limitations" that "small size and light weight"
impose on crashworthiness. But in the 1990s both Mr. Nader and the
Center reversed their position. Why? Because CAFE presented them with a
stark choice between more government power and more safety. They went
for more power.
- Not Consumer Reports, which has consistently failed to mention the
importance of size and weight in discussing how to choose a safer car.
Though it is regarded as the information bible by many car buyers, not
a single one of its annual auto issues in the last five years has
touched on this topic.
As the National Research Council reported, the current CAFE program
-- 27.5 mpg for passenger cars -- contributed to about 2,000 deaths.
But driving is going to get even more lethal over the next decade: CAFE
standards will be raised to a 35 mpg combined average for cars and
light trucks. And with the notable exception of IIHS, information about
those risks may be hard to come by.
Mr. Kazman is general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.