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Does size really matter in cars? Not for safety

Small cars are getting a 2nd look in the US: beyond the arrival of microcars, high gas prices and fuel efficiency legislation may mandate a national downsizing. With all the attention, the bigger is better myth is being both revived and reevaluated.

Let’s talk first about supersized rides.

In the past 3 decades American cars have just been getting larger. In 1975 more than 80% of vehicles were cars and light trucks were mostly just used for agriculture or delivery. In 2006, more than 50% of new vehicles were light trucks, a category that includes SUVs.

In the past decade, cars have grown within every class. The average 2007 midsize SUV has grown 10 inches in length, 4 inches in width and gained 474 pounds, according to auto research site Edumunds.com. Compact sedans are 2 inches longer and wider on average. Midsize and large sedans have added hundreds of pounds.

While improved technologies have allowed for fuel efficiency increases in Europe, in the US those improvements have been offset by consumer choice. Given that three quarters of a cars fuel usage is caused by weight, US appetite for the big has had its price.

Presidential candidate calls for end of SUVs

The supersizing of American cars may be coming to an end. With gas prices higher than they’ve been in decades and growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, the call for the shrinking of the American car is growing.

In August of 2007 US Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards said during a speech to union workers that Americans need to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and when asked whether they should give up their SUVs, he boldly replied: “Yes.”

A 35 mpg standard

For the first time in 2 decades the U.S. legislature is trying to revise the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. In June, the Senate to passed a bill to adjust this standard for cars and light trucks combined to 35 mpg.

Since the current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for light trucks, a move to a 35 mpg average will require some vehicle downsizing.

What America wants

Currently, large SUVs and full-sized pickup trucks account for nearly 80% of North American automotive profits for Ford and General Motors, according to Deutsche Bank analyst Rod Lache, so US automakers have been battling this new legislation since talks began in the Senate.

While GM vice chairman Robert Lutz claims his company builds and sells “big cars and trucks in the United States because that is what consumers there say they want,” his company, along with other Detroit automakers have played to American consumers Achilles heel when it comes to auto purchases: the safety myth.

“Forced to build smaller and smaller cars”

Last May, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Detroit’s Big Three among other automakers, spent $1 million on a print and radio campaign to fight the proposed fuel efficiency changes.

In one ad a woman warns: “automakers are going to be forced to build smaller and smaller cars.” Her friend replies: “Why can’t they let me make the choice? I’m all for better fuel economy, but for me safety is my top concern.”

Cars that kill

Detroit automakers aren’t the only ones perpetuating the safety myth. It’s also being sensationalized by some American press. In August of 2007, USA Today published an article last month with the lead: “Americans are buying more small cars to cut fuel costs, and that might kill them.”

Author James Healey admits that smaller vehicles are safer than ever, often even “safer than average”, but that “even the safest are governed by the laws of physics, which rule in favor of bigger, heavier vehicles, even in single-vehicle crashes.”

Gut instinct isn’t enough

The majority of Americans appear to agree with him. According to a Time/CNN poll, 55% of Americans believe SUVs are safer than cars because of their size, but according to Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator and George W. Bush appointee, this is a dangerous assumption.

“People, when they choose to buy a vehicle, they might go sit in it and say, ‘Gee, I feel safe,’ but gut instinct … isn’t very good for buying a safe automobile.”

Research backs him up, showing that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Size as an indicator of safety fails to take into account stopping distances, rollover statistics and even the risk of getting into an accident in the first place.

To be considered as well: crash avoidance and aggressivity

Rather than equate size with safety, car design is a more adequate indicator. The ICCT report lists three main factors for influencing vehicle safety:

  • Crashworthiness: the ability of a vehicle to protect its occupants in the event of a crash.
  • Crash avoidance: the ability of a vehicle, through manual and automated handling and braking, to avoid a serious crash altogether.
  • Aggressivity: determined by designs that make a vehicle incompatible and more dangerous to others it comes into contact with.

When we look at a vehicle’s size as a safety metric, we are only considering crashworthiness. While bigger isn’t necessarily better in this regard (you need to consider crumple zones- something we’ll touch upon later in the article), in the other two categories size can even be a detriment.

Aggressivity looks at vehicle design and its compatibility with other cars on the road. Safety is seen in a more communal light, in terms of both safety to the car occupants and to other vehicles on the road. In this category, SUVs and light trucks score poorly and are considered “some of the least safe vehicles on the road today.”

Crashworthiness vs crash avoidance

America has the biggest cars in the world because, unlike other countries, we don’t give much weight to crash avoidance. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best selling book The Tipping Point, explains in his blog that the SUV boom represents a shift in how we view driving safety- from active to passive.

“In Europe and Japan, people think of a safe car as a nimble car. That’s why they build cars like the Jetta and the Camry, which are designed to carry out the driver’s wishes as directly and efficiently as possible… An S.U.V. embodies the opposite logic. The driver is seated as high and far from the road as possible. The vehicle is designed to overcome its environment, not to respond to it.”

According to Gladwell, drivers of the Jetta die at a rate of 47 per million: “in the same range as drivers of the five-thousand-pound Chevrolet Suburban and almost half that of popular S.U.V. models like the Ford Explorer or the GMC Jimmy.”

Crashworthiness: safety for the car or occupant?

While small cars are only getting safer- thanks to new technologies like front and side airbags, high-strength steel, antilock brakes and electronic stability control-, our impression of them doesn’t seem to be improving.

Smaller cars do show more visible damage from a crash. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), smaller cars incur higher collision insurance losses per vehicle than larger cars.

But smaller cars may be able to avoid more crashes in the first place- “the nimble argument”- and when crashes do occur the extra damage doesn’t mean the occupants suffer.

Natae Rayner, senior product education and development administrator for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., explained to MSNBC in June of 2007, the newer technologies being used in many small cars, the vehicle suffers so the occupant doesn’t have to. “There are crush zones and crush boxes in the front of the vehicles used to absorb the impact then distribute that force in the proper places.”

S.M. Shahed, a corporate fellow for Honeywell Turbo Technologies, predicts that our super-efficient cars of the future (100 mpg) will probably be totaled in 25 mpg crashes.

“I think our philosophy needs to change from safety for the vehicle to safety for the occupant…. if the price you have to pay for a 100 mpg car is totaling the car at 25 mph, I’m willing to pay that price.”

How small is safe?

When the Mercedes Smart car goes on sale in the US in early 2008, at 106 inches in length it will be the smallest car on the market (not including neighborhood electric vehicles like the 92-inch Kurrent in a faircompanies video).

According to its website, not only will its crush zones take the impact during a crash, but its tridiron safety cell has been designed to return some of the impact to the other vehicle: “the cell’s transverse and lateral struts transfer some impact to the crumple zones of the other vehicle involved in the collision”.

Not only does the Smart For Two comes with crash security like the reinforced steel body- the tridiron cell-, polycarbonate body panels to absorb force in low-speed collisions and crash boxes- but the designers have incorporated crash avoidance into the design.

“Before the tridion safety cell and the crash management system have a chance to prove what the can do, we’ve built in active damage prevention features to help prevent an accident in the first place”.

These include an electronic stability program, antilock break systems with electronic brake-force distribution, Cornering Brake Control, brake assist, acceleration skid control and hill holder.

These features help to improve upon human instinct, like the brake assist feature that “senses panic stopping by the speed at which you depress the brake pedal and automatically applies all available braking boost immediately. By helping to eliminate the delay caused by human nature, Brake Assist can potentially reduce stopping distances when it matters most.”

Urban cars vs all terrain vehicles

While size may have some bearing on safety for some drivers- those who prefer to be passive rather than active or those who drive more often at high speeds – but for those who plan to use their car for trips around town, a 5000-pound SUV might be a bit too clumsy for manoeuvring around parking lots and in neighborhood school zones.

Maybe all terrain vehicles with their four wheel drive just aren’t necessary, and are potentially more dangerous, for those arduous trips to the grocery store.

Even small car skeptic and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) spokesman Russ Raider admits there is a place for microcars like the Smart ForTwo. “If you’re driving in low-speed urban situations, a small car might be a better alternative.”