Reframing the Discussion Around Small-Car Safety

Joseph B. White

Minicars, Subcompacts Still Face a Disadvantage But Auto Makers Are Working to Close the Gap

Small is beautiful in the U.S. automobile market as gasoline prices head to new records almost daily. Still, many American motorists wonder whether small cars are safe.

One answer is that small cars are a lot safer than they used to be -- as safe, by one measure, as midsize cars were a decade ago.

One startling symbol of how far crash protection technology has come is last week's announcement that the miniscule 1,800-pound Smart Fortwo achieved "good" ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's rigorous front and side crash tests. A little over a decade ago, the Insurance Institute complained that none of the 11 top-selling small cars merited a "good" rating in its crash testing. Now, five of 17 2008 model small cars listed on the IIHS Web site have good ratings for both the front and side crash tests.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that small and minicars as a class still have higher fatality rates per million registered vehicles than most larger vehicles. That's a challenge for manufacturers who will need to sell more small cars to meet fuel-economy standards and respond to consumer concerns about fuel costs.

"The tradeoff is still there," says Adrian Lund, the Insurance Institute's president. "Large cars and small cars are both much better designed to protect occupants than 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. But if you look at the fatality rates today, we see the risk doubles for the smallest cars" compared to a very large one.

Mr. Lund says there's no way to eliminate the difference. "This is just the laws of physics. It's size and weight and the distance it takes to bring objects to a stop." If a large car hits a tree, there is more car to absorb the crash -- and more space within the car to provide cushioning for the impact on the driver's body -- than there would be in a compact or minicar.

Manufacturers of small cars will need to convince consumers of a different view, and as the Smart crash tests indicate, that work is well under way.

The Smart car is designed around a stiff, beefy steel cage that encircles the occupants. Because the car has relatively little space between the bumper and the driver, the seat belts and airbags do more of the work cushioning the forces of a front-end crash, according to the IIHS crash-test analysis.

At Honda Motor Co., which depends the most on small vehicle sales of any of the U.S. market Big Six manufacturers, attacking the problem of small-car safety has been a top priority for years. Honda engineers and product planners emphasize that crashworthiness isn't simply about putting more airbags in a car. It's also about the design of the vehicle's body and the kind of steel that's used. Car makers are using significantly more high-strength steel in new models, despite the higher cost, to make cars more crashworthy without adding too much weight, which is bad for gas consumption.

Driver deaths per million registered passenger vehicles 1-3 years old:
  1996 Rate 2006 Rate
 Mini 165 106
 Small 126 99
 Midsize 99 70
 Large 63 69
 Very large 76 41
 Small 143 116
 Large 118 98
 Very large 94 84
 Small 108 42
 Midsize 96 50
 Large 57 43
 Very large 58 33
Source: IIHS

Honda for several years has promoted an approach to body design it calls ACE, (for Advanced Compatibility Engineering). The idea is to design a small vehicle (the next generation Honda Fit for example) that doesn't just crumple in a front-end crash, but dissipates the crash forces along channels engineered into the body so as to spare the occupants the full brunt of the impact.

"We understand the traditional U.S. mindset is that a larger car protects you more than a smaller car," says Will Walton, product planning manager for car lines at Honda's U.S. sales arm in Torrance, Calif. As consumers move into smaller cars because of fuel prices, he says, "we want to give them peace of mind."

The next step is more difficult: reframing the discussion of safety around avoiding, rather than surviving a collision. This is tricky, because to some degree it hinges on the behavior of drivers. Small cars are, usually, nimbler and quicker handling than lumbering, large SUVs. It's reasonable to think that a good driver in a small car could steer out of a situation that would cause a crash for someone in a slower-handling, heavier vehicle with a long stopping distance. But note the qualifier: a good driver.

Crash-avoidance technology is emerging as the next frontier in safety, and could be critical for improving the odds for smaller vehicles. Mr. Lund says technology such as electronic stability control to prevent rollovers or systems that automatically brake when a collision is imminent can be game changers.

The industry still has a distance to travel before all small vehicles incorporate the current state-of-the-art in crash survival technology, such as head-protecting side airbags (due in all vehicles by about 2010) and more crush-resistant roofs.

What's more, it will take years before time and trade-ins clear away the legacy of the past decade, when millions of drivers went to battle on the roads in heavy SUVs and pickups. Many of these vehicles were designed without as much concern for crash compatibility with small cars as SUVs and pickups are today.

As more Americans switch into smaller vehicles to save at the pump, they will need to think about how to balance the thriftiness of a small car against the added cost for the insurance policy of a larger, less-efficient car. They should also hope that manufacturers keep pushing the envelope on small car design, so that some day those tradeoffs won't be as significant.

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