Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guest Posting: Crash! The Hidden Dangers of Gas Sipping Minicars

(Clean Air Watch periodically accepts guest postings that we find informative or provocative. The following piece by guest writer Holly Chavez is certainly both!  We welcome comments and other views.)

There’s a lot of small cars out there. They are gaining popularity as they become even more fuel-efficient, and the only vehicles that outsell them are midsize models. People usually buy them because they are looking to save costs or are environmentally conscious. Small vehicles are usually less expensive than larger ones and are usually cheaper to insure. They also offer a lot of green benefits because they don't burn as many fossil fuels as large autos; this in turn leads to a smaller carbon footprint and better air quality.

Small cars have a lot going for them, but are they safe? The answer to that question lies in a recent batch of crash safety tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The results are surprising because many of the vehicles didn't pass an important crash test that is an indicator of how well the manufacturer structures the car to protect its occupants from a collision to the front of the vehicle. One of the small groups that did poorly was the minicar.

Minicars Fail an Important Crash Test

The IIHS overlap front test is a test launched in 2012 that simulates an accident that is seen frequently in real-world driving. Of the eleven minicars that were put through the crash test recently, only one passed, the Chevrolet Spark (and it barely passed). The IIHS said that they were the worst performing group of all the sizes of cars that were evaluated up to that point. They also went on to say that the Honda Fit and Fiat 500 performed the worst of all the eleven types of the tiny cars that were tested.

"Both saw the basic structure of the passenger compartment fold up during the crash, so much so that the test dummy's head didn't stay in contact with the frontal airbag, sliding off and hitting the instrument panel. The driver's door on the 500 tore open at its hinges".1

Likewise, the overlap front test has been difficult for some large and midsize vehicles. The Toyota Camry lost a key safety rating awarded to it by the IIHS for the Top Safety Pick after it failed the crash test. Toyota will need to make changes to the design of the Camry if they want to win back this honor.

Many automakers responded afterwards by putting additional bracing on the front of their vehicles. That is not a viable option for the mini-vehicle because extra bracing and weight will worsen fuel efficiency and negatively impact performance. Those of you that may be wanting to buy one to lower gas bills and car payments may need to pause and weigh the risks of owning these miniatures, especially in the case of head on collisions.

In fact, there is a potential danger with wrecks that involve the front of the car in these mini-sized cars, especially if the two vehicles are not matched in size or weight. If the collision involves these tiny cars and say, a semi-truck, the occupants inside are very likely to get injured. This is a fact to consider before purchasing one of the minicars that failed the IIHS overlap front test. Even more importantly, you could find yourself in your extra tiny car facing the business end of a larger vehicle traveling on the wrong side of the road.

Consider the ABC news story about the impaired mom from New York that caused a horrific accident. She pulled onto a wrong exit while traveling on New York's Tatonic State Parkway and wound up going the wrong way in the fast lane. She wound up striking an SUV head on while she was traveling in the wrong lane. The front of any car that failed the overlap front test would not do very well in this type of collision, especially the mini.

Some Small Cars Have Good Safety Ratings

Small cars are a size up from mini cars, and 17 of them were recently tested using the IIHS frontal crash test. Five from the group passed the test, and the ones that did pass were awarded the Top Safety Pick + award that include the overlap frontal crash test results in its rating.

Two small cars received a rating of "good" in the test, the 2013 Honda Sedan and Coupe. The Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, 2014 Scion and 2013 Dodge Dart each received an "acceptable" rating when frontal crash tested-which still allowed them to receive the Top Safety Pick + rating.

So what can be taken away from all this information? The minicars rated the lowest on the IIHS overlap front crash test. If you want the gas savings and green advantages, but still want one of these tiny cars, it's safest to get the Chevy Spark. Probably a better bet would be to go a size up and purchase one of the five small models that passed the frontal crash test such as the 2013 Honda Sedan or Coupe.

Many of the small cars like the Ford Focus still get good fuel economy, also. Small and lightweight automobiles have a distinct disadvantage regarding safety, so it's important to buy one that will protect you the best from a wreck to the front of your vehicle.

(Holly Chavez is the author of this article and the owner of a red minicar. She researched online sites like because she was curious to see what would happen if she ever had a serious car accident in the no-fault state of New York. Holly is also a member of the clean air campaign and believes in keeping the air and all parts of the environment clean.)


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