Americans are buying more small cars to cut fuel costs, and that might kill them.
As a group, occupants of small cars are more likely to die in crashes than those in bigger, heavier vehicles are, according to data from the government, the insurance industry and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
The newest small vehicles, of course, meet today's strict safety standards and can be laden with the latest safety hardware, such as stability control and side air bags. They are safer than ever. And differing designs mean some small cars are safer than average. But even the safest are governed by the laws of physics, which rule in favor of bigger, heavier vehicles, even in single-vehicle crashes.
If the switch to smaller, lighter vehicles continues to grow, the result could be anywhere from dozens to thousands of traffic deaths that would have been avoided in bigger vehicles, according to fatality records and safety forecasters. The number depends on how many bigger, heavier vehicles ultimately are replaced by smaller, lighter cars.
"People are looking for ways to save fuel, and they need to know that if they decide to buy a much smaller vehicle, they are putting themselves and their families at risk," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS, supported by auto insurance companies, follows traffic deaths closely.
Lund was on an NAS panel that examined potential safety impacts and other consequences of stricter fuel-economy regulations. The panel's report, published in 2002, noted that there are safe, cost-effective ways to boost mileage, but cutting the size and weight of vehicles is not one of them. Years of statistics show that small cars "are involved in more collisions than larger vehicles," and "Small vehicles have higher fatality rates than larger ones," the NAS report said.
When the NAS report was published, small-car sales were 13.7% of the new-vehicle market, and dropping. Today, they have climbed to 15.4%.
High fuel prices, which topped $3 a gallon earlier this year for the third-consecutive year and now average about $2.75, have whipped up interest in fuel-saving small cars.
"With the price of gasoline, it's a fuel-economy thing," says Robin Dey, 56, a nurse in Santa Barbara, Calif., who is shopping for a Honda Civic small car for her daughter in college and drives a Volkswagen New Beetle herself. She says prices got to $3.89 a gallon in her area before they began declining.
"Small cars are more economical, which is important to me because I do a lot of home health care and a lot of driving," she says, running up nearly 100,000 miles on her 2001 Beetle.
Selling better this year
Small cars are the only cars selling better this year than last. In fact, they are the only vehicles of any kind, except SUVs, doing better in a new-vehicle market that's down 3.2% from a year ago, according to sales tracker Autodata. Small-car sales are up 0.2% this year from a year ago.
Sales and registration data show that small cars — what most people call compacts and subcompacts, such as Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Chevrolet Cobalt and smaller — are about 14% of vehicles on the road. But they accounted for nearly 24% of occupants killed in one- and two-vehicle crashes in 2005, the latest year for which specific information is available.