People buy small cars even though they can be deadly

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.

Crashes involving three or more vehicles, which accounted for 7% of fatalities, are excluded from this analysis because the number of vehicles involved in those crashes makes it impossible to determine the fatal contribution of each. Deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and others who weren't riding in vehicles, 13% of the total, also are excluded.

Even when you adjust for the typically younger and less-experienced drivers often behind the wheel in small cars and focus even more tightly by counting only driver deaths, the statistics still are troubling.

A driver is up to twice as likely to die in a small car as in a midsize, just one step up the size scale, according to IIHS data. A 2003 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report showed similar results.

But you can't simply buy a big, heavy vehicle and assume you're safe. Studies show that extra weight does little or no good after about 4,500 pounds, roughly the weight of a minivan or midsize SUV. And the heaviest vehicles, full-size pickups, have driver death rates about the same as small cars.

Small cars can be made safer, but that can boost the price and cut the mileage, undermining the reasons for buying a small car in the first place.

"One of the safest vehicles is the VW Jetta, and it's a relatively small vehicle. VW has designed it very carefully — and charges for it," says Marc Ross, professor emeritus in the physics department at the University of Michigan. He's written a number of papers on small cars and safety.

Volkswagens, in general, he says, "tend to be safe, but they are heavier and get lower fuel economy. If you improve safety, you make a vehicle heavier, at least with today's technology."

Jetta, a compact, weighs more than 3,200 pounds, the same as a midsize car and about 500 pounds more than a typical compact. The weight of its safety hardware and extra-robust structure drags Jetta's mileage per gallon into the mid-20s in combined city-highway driving, same as a midsize car and about 5 mpg less than a typical compact. And Jetta's starting price of $17,000 is about $2,000 more than other popular compacts.

"There are lots of answers" to the question of small-car safety, Ross says. "There just aren't any simple ones."

A June report by a group called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) includes some data from Ross and co-author Tom Wenzel of the U.S. Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That Ross-Wenzel data show that drivers of the safest small cars are only 13% to 15% more likely to die in crashes than drivers of midsize and full-size cars are. But the chart also shows that the least-safe small cars are at least 90% more dangerous than midsize and full-size cars, meaning the driver is almost twice as likely to be killed.

"If you say light cars are more dangerous, in an average sense they are, and some are much more dangerous," Ross says.

The ICCT report was meant to show Congress that it could impose higher fuel-economy standards without compromising safety. The report insists there are "no trade-offs" between size and safety and applauds Honda and Volkswagen for "designing their lighter vehicles to be as safe as heavier vehicles."

But the automakers themselves dispute that.

"We have never made such a statement. Safety is important, but we have never contended that (smaller, lighter vehicles) are at the same level of occupant protection as large vehicles. There are laws of physics involved," says Keith Price, VW's U.S. spokesman. "A 2,000-pound (VW) Rabbit against a 6,000-pound Hummer — well, it's going to be the 6,000-pound Hummer."

"All else being equal, large will trump small," Honda Vice President Ed Cohen said when the ICCT report was released.

There's no single index to the overall safety of small cars, or any vehicles, but several lists are useful. Ross favors the driver death rates published periodically by IIHS in "Status Report" updates at Crash-test scores published by NHTSA ( and by IIHS can help you weed out the flimsiest vehicles and those with the poorest designs and least-effective safety features.

"If you drive responsibly, you should be safe in a small car," says NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. "The important thing is that consumers have a choice. If they want to buy big cars, they should be able to do that. If they want to buy small cars, they should be able to do that, too."

Chris Garlington, 28, a Los Angeles photographer, bought a Toyota Matrix last month, partly because it had room for his photo gear and partly because it was the biggest of the low-price, fuel-saving small cars he was considering.

"I figured I should get the largest I can afford," Garlington says. "That's what they recommend at (shopping service) Fighting Chance, to get the biggest vehicle within the class that you can, for safety."

Matrix scores well in most NHTSA categories but requires the optional side air bags for a good score in side-crash tests.

Safety-minded buyers should "pass up very small light vehicles," IIHS says in its publication Shopping for a Safer Car 2007. Size and weight are "the first crashworthiness attributes to consider," the publication says. Yet multiple air bags, stability control and other modern safety features have convinced people that small cars aren't dangerous.

"I did take safety into account, which is why I wanted to be sure the car has side and head-curtain air bags," says Karen Jennings, 39, a saleswoman in Chattanooga, Tenn.

She's shopping for a replacement for her 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier small car. She's restricted her search to small cars because she's short, 5-foot-2, and believes that small cars "are a little cheaper to run, less expensive to buy."

She's unconcerned about small cars' relatively poor safety record because of the available air bags and because "I'm a very defensive driver. I haven't had an accident in 20-some years of driving."

Dey, the nurse in Santa Barbara, also cites safety hardware: "It seems like every car I look at has at least six air bags."

Often heard is that small cars' agility lets them avoid crashes. But the NAS report found no data to back that up.

And the 2003 NHTSA report written by Charles Kahane, whose size-vs.-safety studies often are cited in other safety reports, went further. Kahane suggested, "Small cars, because they felt more maneuverable, might even have induced drivers to weave in traffic or take other risks they would ordinarily have avoided in a larger vehicle."

The deadly potential of small cars isn't, as many people presume, because SUVs crash into them. Just one of every 11 people — 9% — who died in small cars died as the result of collisions with SUVs, NHTSA data show.

By contrast, 53% of small-car deaths in 2005 involved only small cars. Either a single small car crashed into something such as a guardrail or tree or two small cars crashed into each other, according to the NHTSA data.

Back in the '80s

Small cars' zenith was 1981. Americans still were smarting over petroleum shortages, rationing and record prices after two oil embargoes by Middle East nations in the 1970s. The government had imposed the first fuel-economy regulations. As a result, small cars were 37.7% of the new-vehicle market in '81 — a bigger slice than, for example, the 28.8% that SUVs have today.

Their share of sales eroded to a nadir of 13% in 2004, according to Autodata figures. It climbed to 13.5% in '05, when gasoline first hit $3 a gallon after hurricanes damaged petroleum production in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, small cars were 14.5%, and this year, they are 15.4% of new-vehicle sales.

The lower prices and better mileage of small cars are alluring. But the statistics defining their safety trade-offs are striking.

In its publication about buying a safer car, IIHS lists its "Top Safety Pick" in each size category.

Under small cars, instead of naming two or three high-scoring models, IIHS declares: "No winners."

Do you think smaller cars are too big a price to pay for better fuel economy?