By on May 27, 2008

88civic_crxhf.jpgAs fuel prices hit historic highs, small car safety once again takes center stage. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the Insurance Institute's president gets straight to the nub of the matter. "The tradeoff is still there," says Adrian Lund. "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." The WSJ's Joseph B. White points out that "small cars [that] are a lot safer than they used to be– as safe, by one measure, as midsize cars were a decade ago." Yes, well, a 20-year-old Honda beats the fuel economy pants off a brand new microcar. Which one is safer, and does it matter? (I wouldn't send my wife or daughter out on the mean streets in either.) Anyway, the scribe reprises the old argument that small cars can avoid crashes: "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."  

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41 Comments on “Surprise! Small Cars Still More Dangerous Than Big Ones...”


  • avatar
    SupaMan

    Yep. The driver behind the wheel makes all the difference. Personally, I’d take a larger car (eg. Accord, Malibu) over a smaller car. So I trade a few mpgs for a larger and safer ride.

  • avatar
    menno

    Given the standard of driving that I see on a daily basis (or lack thereof), “a good driver” is as difficult to find in Michigan as a sandy beach and 75 degree sunny day in February.

    Even so, I do try to ensure that the moderate sized vehicles I buy are as safe as possible – exactly for that reason.

    Because I can pay attention, be as good and competent a driver as possible, stay off the **** cell phone, and watch out for the other guy – but the other guy (or gal) can also just as easily slam into me and I can’t do a sodding thing about it.

    Michigan driving generally entails
    -speeding like a lunatic
    -ignoring stop signs entirely (treating them like yield signs IF you are lucky)
    -tailgating
    -weaving over the center line and off the edge of the road (while texting/on cell phone/slapping kids/God only knows what – but not driving)

  • avatar
    lth

    menno:
    Michigan driving generally entails
    -speeding like a lunatic
    -ignoring stop signs entirely (treating them like yield signs IF you are lucky)
    -tailgating
    -weaving over the center line and off the edge of the road (while texting/on cell phone/slapping kids/God only knows what – but not driving)

    I had to fix that for you, since I see the same thing in Texas and every place I have driven.

  • avatar
    sean362880

    Yes, well, a 20-year-old Honda beats the fuel economy pants off a brand new microcar.

    No it doesn’t.

    1988 Honda Civic Hatchback: 34/38 MPG
    2007 Toyota Yaris: 34/39 MPG
    2008 Toyota Yaris (same car) 29/35 MPG

    Remember the EPA fuel economy test changed in 2008, and most numbers dropped 10-20%.

  • avatar
    mocktard

    I’m all for lightweight, fuel-efficient, nimble cars… for myself. The wife drives a 2008 Accord (a good compromise).

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    In this land of pickups and truck based SUV’s hitting one of these behemoths with a subcompact straight-on is not pretty.

  • avatar
    johannas

    The 5 cars to get a perfect 5 out of 5 for NHTSA crash tests in the 2008 model year:

    Acura RL
    Ford Crown Vic
    Ford mustang convertible
    Lincoln town car
    Mercury grand marquis

    http://www.safercar.gov

  • avatar
    thoots

    1. Some of the smallest cars really don’t get mileage as high as you might think.

    2. The Camry/Accord class can come awfully close, in four-cylinder form, to a number of the smallest cars.

    With every other driver paying more attention to a cell phone than the traffic, and teens TYPING OUT TEXT MESSAGES while driving, along with the usual drunk drivers and such, “safety” is a very real concern.

    So, giving up a few MPG’s to get into a slightly bigger car that’ll give you a much better chance of survival against those odds, might well be worth a few more bucks at the pump over the next few years.

  • avatar
    sean362880

    johannas :
    May 27th, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    The 5 cars to get a perfect 5 out of 5 for NHTSA crash tests in the 2008 model year:

    Acura RL
    Ford Crown Vic
    Ford mustang convertible
    Lincoln town car
    Mercury grand marquis

    IIHS adds a few to that list:

    Cadillac CTS
    Volvo S80
    Audi A3,4,6
    Honda Accord 4-door
    Saab 9-3
    Subaru Legacy

    The only small car is the Subaru Impreza, which isn’t really that small, especially when compared to compacts from 1980’s.

  • avatar
    djkronik57

    Aren’t small cars more dangerous in some part because there are large cars? And if we all go out and buy bigger cars to be safer, aren’t we in fact, less safe?

  • avatar

    sean362880 :
    No it doesn’t.

    A CRX HF is pictured. They were rated 57ish highway.

  • avatar
    jaje

    This is the big attack on small cars – they are not as safe in crashes with big SUVs. However this was b/c of the majority of vehicles on the road are SUVs – but now that less and less of these gas guzzlers are on the road that means less chance of suv – car crashes.

    Ever look at a Civic / Civic head on crash at 35mph? Cars look destroyed but the owners get out of them with minor injuries. Ever look at a H2 / H2 head on crash at 35mph? The trucks look banged up and the occupants are in worse condition b/c MFGRs figured size begets advanced safety features as they did in small cars. Then calculate in that 40% of hwy deaths are from single car rollovers and 80% of those are from SUV and Pickups…it makes the mind wander. But the SUV purists and defenders only look at one statistic and that’s SUV / small car crashes and not in totality.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    I agree with djkronik57: much of the danger in small cars is caused by the large cars “light” trucks.

    That is why the government should change their crash safety requirements. Each road-going vehicle should be required to inflict no more than a certain amount of damage when crashed into a modest-sized car. This would mean that bumper heights (and center of gravity) would have to come down so as not to be aimed squarely at window level. This would mean that heavy vehicles would need considerably more crumple zone than they have now to counteract their excessive weight.

    Without such a change in government safety requirements, the USA will continue being the land of guzzling, up-armored vehicles. People rich enough to buy a new vehicle are also rich enough to pay the price of a few more gallons of gas to move the extra weight and size needed for protection.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Instead of changing safety requirements, which force vehicles to become bulkier and heavier, why not change how we teach our drivers? It all comes down to the nut behind the wheel.

  • avatar
    jaje

    quasimondo – I agree to a limited extent and believe we need to have a higher standard of testing for drivers to increase ability and understanding but there are times even the best taught driver can’t avoid an accident or even foresee one so we need the safety.

  • avatar
    Mj0lnir

    Why don’t we quantify crash test ratings based on some mythological “average sedan” and display them on the window sticker along with pollution and mileage rating?

    Crash point rating: damage if you hit a stationary average sedan/damage if you get hit while stationary by an average sedan.

    That way people can make purchasing decisions using a spreadsheet, I.E. “I’m willing to lose 3mpg in order to gain 15/25 crash points.”

  • avatar

    The Jetta has among the least number of associated driver deaths per mile, less than a lot of SUVs, according to a Lawrence Berkeley study. I wouild attribute some of that to superior ability to maneuver.

    I think part of the solution is to ban anything over about 3200 lbs, and/or make insurance rates very sensitive to size–the big ones should pay more since they endanger everyone else.

  • avatar

    The source of this planet’s problems can usually be traced to the fact there are too many humans. Why then do we keep obsessing about “saving lives”??

    In a single-vehicle accident, those roof-mounted crumple zones of light trucks and SUVs combined with their high center-of-gravity should be killing people left & right. Goodness knows Ford & Firestone did their part for the good of the planet!

    In multi-vehicle accidents the sheer mass of the average SUV will easily crush the occupants of a Prius or Civic. Again, the auto makers are helping the planet.

    Throw in morons and cell phones and we should be saving the planet any day now.

    –chuck
    http://chuck.goolsbee.org

    Note to RF: The above is meant to be read as irony.

  • avatar
    NBK-Boston

    In safety testing, the category “large cars” does not include pickup trucks and SUVs. Those are put in a different category, and are generally much less safe than many smaller (or at least mid-sized) cars, generally due to rollover risk. They are also, as has been pointed out, more damaging to others, often due more to crash incompatibility (too-high bumpers) than to general bulk.

    You’re best off in a Crown Vic or New Taurus (i.e. Ford Five Hundred), or equivalent. You’re also getting better fuel economy than you’d get in most pickups or SUVs, as well as posing less of a danger to the drivers of small cars.

    If you’re convinced you’re a good, attentive driver, you might score more economy and nimble handling in a smaller car, but self-rating one’s driving ability is largely a fool’s errand. (Where was it, again, that they claim that all their children are above average?)

    Overall, road fatalities in the US have been steadily declining when measured both against total miles driven and against the size of the resident population — even as we drive more miles per year, we suffer fewer fatalities per million people than we used to. Personally, I get the safest car I can, and then drive it into the ground over many, many years. Others I know trade in cars more frequently, and cite improving safety features as a reason to do so. I always figured that the money I save by holding cars longer can be spent on more effective means of preserving my health (gym membership, anyone?), but if you have more money than you really need anyway, why not buy more automotive safety by upgrading more often?

  • avatar
    roslynsanchez

    Americans are the only drivers who seem to think that a car needs to be built for the stupidest possible common denominator. I prefer a car that handles well to one that can withstand bazooka fire.

    Most accidents are one-car accidents. And you’re much more likely to get into one of those in an SUV that handles like the QE2 than in a car that responds well. A lot of Americans would rather drive a truck every day on the off chance that they’ll be hit by an idiot, than actually have fun driving. Since I’m not paid to drive, I prefer to enjoy it.

  • avatar

    ‘risk doubles for the smallest cars compared to a very large one’.
    So we’ve gone from comparing small cars and large ones to the smallest and a very large one.
    http://news.softpedia.com/news/The-Industry-s-Top-Safest-Cars-14093.shtml
    ‘Five of the cars that are on the list of 11 most safest vehicles are the works of Volkswagens and Audi, which are produced by Volkswagens AG of Germany. The models are: Audi A3, A4 and A6 and the Volkswagen Jetta and Passat.’
    NB: No mini vans passed the ultimate safety test. Other cars like SUVS and pickups have not been included in the evaluation process because the data concerning side-impact crushes have not been ready yet.
    Yes, size matters but as most women know it’s not just the size it’s how you use it that makes a difference.

  • avatar

    David Holzman :
    The Jetta has among the least number of associated driver deaths per mile,

    I think part of the solution is to ban anything over about 3200 lbs

    If you like the jetta, why do you want to ban it (and every other current VW)?

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “1988 Honda Civic Hatchback: 34/38 MPG”

    I based my claim on this information from fueleconomy.gov:

    1988 Civic CRX HF 1.5L, manual transmission: 41 MPG city, 50 highway after adjusting for the new methods. The original EPA numbers in 1988 for that car were 50/56.

    “Aren’t small cars more dangerous in some part because there are large cars?” In part, perhaps, but as long as the highways are chock full of commercial and personal trucks as well as phone poles and bridge abutments you can’t solve the problem by simply mandating that all personal vehicles be small.

    “The Jetta has among the least number of associated driver deaths per mile” Part of that may also be driver demographics as well as the Jetta’s safety engineering.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    One of the writers here either mentioned or actually coined the term “automotive cold wars” to describe the ever increasing size of vehicles for safety’s sake a while back. The writer mentioned a female friend who bought a new SUV to go along with their new baby saying they bought it for safety’s sake.

    While I wouldn’t drive a microcar myself, I’ve always driven a small car. I can’t tell how many accidents I’ve avoided in my small cars over the years, but it is close to one time every time I drive. That is when a car, usually an SUV, makes a sudden maneuver into my path. It happens pretty much every day. Anyhow SUVs that are used to get groceries suck. They suck suck suck. If I was king I would make them illegal. I would only allow them on dirt roads and to and from construction sites. Fortunately I’m not king because I would also abolish speed limits and make a lot of other questionable decisions.

    But seriously, wouldn’t a better study be not to just look at how well a vehicle does in an accident, but how often vehicles get into accidents? I’ve never driven an SUV (except as a rental) and in 20 years of driving, never been in an accident as the driver (plenty as a passenger).

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I should have put the word cars in bold type in the original entry here. The data for large vs. small cars still shows a significant advantage for larger cars. SUVs and pickup trucks are a whole ‘nuther thing and end up in more rollover and other single vehicle accidents than do cars. All those parents claiming that they bought an SUV for the safety of their children are, at best, mistaken.

    “PartNew research from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that children riding in SUVs have similar injury risks to children who ride in passenger cars. The study, published today in the journal Pediatrics, found that an SUV’s increased risk of rolling over during a crash offset the safety benefits associated with larger, heavier-weight vehicles.”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/01/060106133246.htm

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Aren’t small cars more dangerous in some part because there are large cars? And if we all go out and buy bigger cars to be safer, aren’t we in fact, less safe?….

    Absolutely the truth. Remember when 4000 lbs was the “big, safe vehicle”? The real problem in most cases is the disparity in weights and ride heights that dictate who comes out best in a crash. Couple the fact that smaller vehicles (smaller prices) are often driven by young drivers. This alone makes small cars at a statistical disadvantage. I recall reading once that 2 door Dodge Shadows had a rollover rate that was 4 times that of the 4 door variety. The only difference? The age of the drivers. It seems that yesterday’s “safe” car has been outclassed by today’s “safe” car because it has gained 1000 pounds of unnecessary blubber…blubber that degrades active safety, i.e. proper handling…

  • avatar
    jaje

    Did they include suicidal tendencies of being depressed b/c they had to drive a Dodge Shadow. j/k – well I used to have a Dodge 600 SE so I did feel more depressed when my friends had nice cars.

  • avatar
    ghillie

    I cannot locate the research, but I understand that (on average) SUV’s are less safe than sedans in every main type of accident (like with a stationary object or with a vehicle of a similar size) except where the SUV is against a smaller vehicle.

    SUV’s are also less manoeuvreable, more likely to roll over and are more aggressive to other vehicles (bumper heights, less “crumple” zones.

    That is, SUV’s are only more safe because they transfer some of the risk of injury or death in an accident to other road users. In doing so, they increase the total collective risk of road trauma.

    People who buy SUV’s for safety are either ill-informed or belong to what I think of as the “f-u” school of road safety.

  • avatar
    mel23

    I guess I’m in the “f-u” school. After being nearly killed while driving a Honda CRX by a driver reading a map at night instead of watching the road while she ran a stop sign, I know there are unavoidable situations where it’s them or me. It’s impossible to avoid what you don’t see.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    If you look at the death rates the IIHS puts together you’ll find some interesting statistics. Minivans are best. Small SUVs do great. Toyotas do great. A small Toyota or Honda will do better than a number of vehicles of any size. Small American and Korean cars don’t do great, etc. etc.

    You really do have to look at specific cars.

  • avatar
    michaelC

    Big cars are safer than small cars to a significant degree because of thier mass. If a big car hits a small car, the small car must dissipate more energy.

    No fault insurance is a subsidy for larger, heavier vehicles, especially SUVs and trucks. People driving light cars subsidize the ‘safety’ gained by those driving heavier cars.

    As a practical matter, no fault makes sense, but payment of the total damages in a two vehicle crash should be assessed by the ratio of the vehicle weights. Better yet would be to look at the velocity of the crash and taking the ratio of the kenetic energy each vehicle contributed to the crash.

    I suspect, the result would be a significant increase in the cost of insuring big vehicles — making them pay a fairer share of their ‘contribution’ in an accident. It just might might dissaude some people from buying insurance (in the form of a heavy vehicle) at the perverse cost of placing others at greater risk.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    A small Toyota or Honda will do better than a number of vehicles of any size.….

    A year ago there was an article in the NYT stating real world data showing the death rate in a Ford Excursion to be 5 times that of a Toyota RAV4. So much for size superiority. I really wonder how much of that is due to assholes behind the wheel…most Excursion drivers seem to suffer from SPS (smallpenissyndrome).

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    jaje:
    Bravo! brilliant.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    This is an arms race that I wont be buying into, but I also don’t drive in situations where someone hitting me unavoidably at high speed is even close to being likely.

    Is it crazy to want to level the field to dissuade people from buying armored vehicles so that they can kill other people? I just don’t know how it would be possible.

    I figure going down in a car crash is one of the best ways to go out, anyway. You probably wont even know that it happened or feel any pain. Sounds a lot better to me than being told that I have cancer and 6 months to live.

  • avatar

    depends if you go out like a light or not. And depnds on if you go out, or end up maimed.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    Yeah, that’s true, a lot of people just end up terribly disabled. I’d take a ride on the impaling steering column over that.

    I guess the answer is to make small lightweight cars that have more surface area to absorb impact. Weight may help you if you hit something lighter, but it looks like from research and data that it’s all about the crumple zones. If all large vehicles had more volume dedicated to absorb impact, would that not benefit everyone? In a crash, you not only benefit from your own crumple area, but also that of the vehicle that you are colliding with. On the other hand, this means more weight penalties, cars bigger than they need to be (parking and maneuverability become worse), and entry/exit might be kind of weird if you have 15 extra inches on the sides of a car dedicated to impact.

    edit: Actually the real answer will be for cars to be computer controlled and self driving. This is the way to make small cars as safe to the occupants as massive ones. It’s a little sad, but we should still be able to get our kicks on track day.

  • avatar
    EJ_San_Fran

    I have doubts about these safety statistics.

    Are small cars really unsafe?
    Or are small cars statistically unsafe because they are statistically driven more often by young, inexperienced drivers?

    The best safety statistics belong to minivans. Probably because they are driven by the proverbial soccer moms and not by speeding teens…

    I know, I know, if you get run over by a monster truck, it’s not great to be in a tiny car. But that’s only one part of safety statistics.

    It seems to me that a small car with a very strong frame and airbags all around ought to be pretty safe.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Few days ago I saw a Toyo rolla changed lane wthout payng attention, nearly cut off a Porsche 356 replica. I am not sure if the 356 being a small/ height challenged vehicle, that the Rolla just fail to see.

    I drive a F250 Diesel truck and an old Merc 300SD.

    As good old Henry said, Nothing beats the inches.

  • avatar
    Captain Neek

    The problem is that people purchase trucks and minivans for their families in the mistaken belief that they are safe…

    Euro NCAP recently started testing trucks and the results are frightening:

    So, what’s REALLY safer, esp when you add poor handling, greater propensity to rolloever and the like into the mix?

  • avatar
    Busbodger

    Blowfish: Toyota prob didn’t see it. Drove an ’83 CR-X for a year and a half and I loved that car despite it’s cosmetic challenges (nobody has loved that car but me). It was so short that several times people almost changed lanes into me.

    My driving style is I find pretty defensive. I will do anything not to ride next to someone. If I have to (traffic) then I make sure I can see the driver’s mirror and that he/she should be able to see me. In short I drive like I’m on a motorcycle – another mode of transport where people have not seen me several times.

    On the interstate the CR-X really shined IF semi-trucks were not in the mix. My face was at about the same level as their hubcaps and I suspect I could have passed under their trailers without much trouble. I drove like they NEVER saw me and never had any trouble.

    Remember one night when I was traveling from VA to TN and found a tandem trailer with a sleepy driver. He was all over the road – especially the 2nd trailer. Dropped back quite a ways and then passed him at 90 mph to minimize my time next to his rig. I doubt my car would have caused more than a bump to him.

    I think we need less large vehicle and more compacts on the road today (and for the past 20 years) to wean ourselves from this oil addiction courtesy of the Arab teats. Efficient small cars would take us a long way so in that way I welcome high fuel prices. Compacts are also the easiest chassis to use for EVs so again I want more compacts on the road. And small cars vs small cars in a crash is safer.

    Saw where oil took another big leap upwards today…

  • avatar
    Beelzebubba

    My dad recently retired his ’98 Jeep Grand Cherokee from commuter duty. He drives almost 80 miles round trip each day and 18mpg just wasn’t cutting it.

    He now makes that same long commute in my grandmother’s ’90 Honda Civic. I was, and continue to be, very concerned about the safety of an 18-year old subcompact in a world full of soccer mom’s driving massive SUVs. I’m trying to talk him into a new Civic.

    My first car back in 1990 was an ’85 Honda CRX. At the time, I didn’t give the size/safety of it a moment of thought. Today, I doubt I’d venture onto a highway in it. My Mazda3 is about as small as I care to go!


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