Hybrid cars are hot sellers for today's gas-conscious American drivers. But for emergency workers who might have to rescue someone from a high-tech wreck, the vehicles may be literally too hot to handle.
The technology behind hybrids — cars that use both a gasoline engine and electric motor for propulsion — may save on fuel for the driver, but it could also put rescuers at risk of serious electrical shock.
"If you're walking up to a [hybrid] car that's laid up on its side, the last thing we're looking forward to is getting electrocuted" says Herbert Scott, chief of the Brinker Volunteer fire department in Silver Springs, Texas. "Without a doubt there will be a day where that will happen."
And while such fatalities haven't occurred yet — in part because of the relatively small percentage of hybrids on U.S. roads so far — Scott and others in the emergency response field see the signs of change.
This summer, Ford will release its long awaited Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle. And adding to its successful Prius hybrid, Toyota will add its own gas-sipping SUVs, the Lexus RX400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
And that has many rescue personnel worried.
"There are a lot of dangerous things [in hybrids] that we don't normally consider in car accidents," says Todd Hoffman, an independent contractor who teaches volunteer firefighters about car collisions on behalf of several auto insurance agencies.
One of the biggest concerns is the electrical system of hybrids. Normal cars use batteries typically in the 12 volt range. But in hybrids, the electrical requirements can be 10 to 20 times greater and that could provide for unpleasant surprises.
"In a 12-volt vehicle, if a rescuer cuts through a battery cable, the biggest threat he faces is creating a spark that ignites something," says Hoffman. "In a hybrid, if you cut through the wrong thing — a high-voltage cable — it's possible you'll have a dead responder on your hands."
Manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota say their hybrid vehicles have computer safety systems that are suppose to minimize the risk of accidental electrocution. Officials at Toyota, for example, say controls on-board its Prius will automatically shut-off the engine and disconnect power if the airbags deploy or it senses a sudden deacceleration indicative of a collision.
What's more, high-voltage components in hybrids are marked by bright orange colors to alert rescuers of the potential danger. And while its hidden away from sight by normal owners, the location of these components are clearly marked in guides freely published and offered to any emergency agency that requests them.
"We have worked very closely with experienced safety crews to identify how best to ensure the safety of everyone involved," said Dave Zellers, Toyota vice president of quality and service support, in a press release. "The fact is that Prius hybrids have been on U.S. roads for five years and we're not aware of any personal injury in the U.S. related to hybrid or [pure electric vehicle] electrical systems."
As consumers wait in line for these cars, Scott, like the millions of other firefighters and emergency "first responders" nationwide are still examining the new technology in order to identify possible hazards and methods of dealing with them.