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Report: Very Small Cars Not Big on Safety

By David Goguen | Last updated on

In these shaky economic times, many Americans are adopting a "less is more" mindset, and in the vehicle market that means mammoth SUVs are out and smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles are in. But a new crash test study shows that owners of these smaller cars may be sacrificing safety for affordability.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducted crash tests of three popular "microcar" or "minicar" models: the Honda Fit, Smart Fortwo, and Toyota Yaris. These sub-compacts were evaluated for their performance in front-to-front crashes with larger mid-size vehicles from the same manufacturers. All three minicar models received poor marks in the IIHS crash tests.

According to an IIHS News Release on the Microcar Crash Tests, the results come down to the laws of physics in car accidents, which dictate that tiny cars will never protect people as effectively as larger cars can: "In a collision involving two vehicles that differ in size and weight, the people in the smaller, lighter vehicle will be at a disadvantage. 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."

A look at real-world vehicle crash statistics backs up the IIHS findings related to the safety of microcars in crashes with larger vehicles. "The death rate in 1- to 3-year-old minicars in multiple-vehicle crashes during 2007 was almost twice as high as the rate in very large cars," according to the IIHS.

The New York Times points out that "The argument over weight versus safety is not a new one but took on greater significance when gasoline prices rose sharply last year, making minicars more popular." The focus on global warming has also made small cars more attractive, as drivers seek to reduce their fossil fuel footprints.   

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