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Jim Bray

Do the Al Gores of the World Want You Dead?

By Jim Bray
April 18, 2009

Does the green movement's push toward forcing people into smaller, more fuel efficient cars have the potential to kill?

Maybe, if you look at the newest Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report entitled "New crash tests demonstrate the influence of vehicle size and weight on safety in crashes; results are relevant to fuel economy policies".

According to the IIHS, "Three front-to-front crash tests, each involving a microcar or minicar into a midsize model from the same manufacturer, show how extra vehicle size and weight enhance occupant protection in collisions." The tests look at the actual physics of car crashes, and show clearly that "very small cars generally can't protect people in crashes as well as bigger, heavier models."

Well, duh. It's basic physics or, to paraphrase Sancho Panza, it doesn't matter whether the pitcher hits the rock or the rock hits the picture, it's going to be bad for the pitcher.

"There are good reasons people buy minicars," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "They're more affordable, and they use less gas. But the safety trade-offs are clear from our new tests. Equally clear are the implications when it comes to fuel economy. If automakers downsize cars so their fleets use less fuel, occupant safety will be compromised."

So think twice before you order that Tata Nano, Smart Fortwo, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent Toyota Yaris or whatever. Are you endangering the lives of your loved ones to save money or gas?

The Institute chose pairs of 2009 models from Daimler, Honda, and Toyota because they have micro and mini models that earned good frontal crashworthiness ratings, based on the Institute's own test. Researchers rated performance in the 40 mph car-to-car tests (running a C Class into a Smart Fortwo, an Accord vs. a Fit and a Camry slamming into a Yaris) on the measured intrusion into the occupant compartment, forces recorded on the driver dummy, and movement of the dummy during the impact.

All of the models tested did poorly in the car-to-car collision tests.

The Institute says that injuries suffered by passengers depend on the forces acting on them, which in turn are affected by two key physical factors: the weight of the crashing vehicle and the vehicle's size.

In the first case, the weight determines how much the vehicle's velocity will change during impact (the more it changes, the greater the forces on the passengers and the higher risk of the injury – you've felt this when you jammed on the brake pedal and were thrown forward). The second factor is vehicle size, specifically "the distance from the front of a vehicle to its occupant compartment." The greater this distance, the lower the forces on the occupants.  

"In a collision involving two vehicles that differ in size and weight, the people in the smaller, lighter vehicle will be at a disadvantage" says the IIHS. "The bigger, heavier vehicle will push the smaller, lighter one backward during the impact. This means there will be less force on the occupants of the heavier vehicle and more on the people in the lighter vehicle. Greater force means greater risk, so the likelihood of injury goes up in the smaller, lighter vehicle."

This is why you bet on the semi, or the train, if you're wagering on who'll walk away from the collision with a car.

The IIHS cites crash statistics: "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."

Adrian Lund acknowledges that small cars are a lot safer than they used to be. I'd warrant that better suspensions and rubber, stability control, disc brakes, seat belts, air bags and the like contribute to this – but at the cost of added weight that robs fuel mileage and affects handling – and also adds cost so that a 15 thousand dollar car today is pretty well entry level, whereas 20 years ago you could get a pretty nice set of wheels for that price (of course inflation comes into play as well).  But despite evolving safety equipment, you can't fight Mother Nature.

Besides, these safety features are being added to all cars, so while they make small cars safer they make bigger cars safer yet.

Al Gore and his ilk may crow now from their limos "Aha! So the solution is to make everyone drive small cars so we're all equal." And while they have a point so far as car-to-car collisions are concerned, the IIHS studies show that smaller cars are less crashworthy in single vehicle incidents as well. "Almost half of all crash deaths in minicars occur in single-vehicle crashes," the IIHS says, "And these deaths wouldn't be reduced if all cars became smaller and lighter. In fact, the result would be to afford less occupant protection fleetwide in single-vehicle crashes."

One way to help ensure safer roads, according to the IIHS, is a return to the 55 miles per hour highway speed limit that car lovers hate. "Fifty-five was adopted to save fuel," Lund says, "but it turned out to be one of the most dramatic safety successes in motor vehicle history."  

Personally, I'd rather be torn apart by wild dogs than drive 55. And I seem to remember other stats that disagreed with Lund's assessment of the "Double Nickel", though I don't have them handy.

I've been of the opinion for a long time that safe driving starts with the part that's been the weak link ever since the car was invented: the "nut behind the wheel". A clueless oaf in a Hummer and a clueless oaf in a Yaris are both dangerous – except that, all things being equal, the oaf in the Hummer has a better chance of surviving the cluelessness.

But a skilled driver in a Yaris might be able to avoid the oaf in the Hummer. Oh, sure, there are times when a collision is unavoidable – a deer leaping onto your hood, for example – but I believe most are avoidable.

Too many of today's "conventional" driving schools seem to teach how to pass the test, not how to drive well, and the result is obvious on today's streets – people texting, reading, putting on makeup or eating lunch as they drive.

This is why I'm a firm believer in performance driving courses, which are offered in many venues around the world. My local race track has hosted such events for years and now hosts the Allen Berg Racing School. These courses teach you how to control your vehicle better, better ways of looking out of the vehicle at the world around you, and can give you better confidence in your and your car's abilities.

When I took my first one I amazed at its effectiveness. This particular school was over a weekend, blending classroom sessions with in-car time on a skidpad and a road course. We learned threshold braking, which ensures you don't lock up your brakes in a panic stop (ABS supposedly does this for you but, like traction and stability control, is hardly a panacea), how (and why) you should look down the road far ahead of you (in part, to see danger – or radar! – as far away as possible to avoid it better), and even such "small" things as the proper way to sit and to hold the steering wheel.

It was great! Not only did it make me a better driver it was about as much fun as you can have if you love cars. The class was an eclectic mix of men and women, and vehicles ranged from Porsches and BMW's to a VW Golf. Everyone should have left the weekend a better driver – more aware of his abilities, his vehicle's capabilities, and the conditions on the road ahead.

Though I'm not big on government regulation, I'd like to see high performance driving courses mandatory – at the potential driver's expense, of course – before anyone can earn a driver's license – and perhaps every several years afterward.

Want to drive? Learn to drive well. That's your best collision avoidance system.

Copyright 2009 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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