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Auto Safety vs. Fuel Economy: Questions of Size and Design

by Barry Meier
The New York Times
2 November 1991


...This week, some advocates of safer cars accused Federal Department of Transportation officials of unfairly manipulating a crash test that was subsequently seen in a television commercial.

The commercial, in which a large car smashes head-on into a small one and crushes it, was paid for by the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, an auto industry group. Car makers oppose a Senate bill that would raise average fuel economy standards from 27.5 miles per gallon to 40 miles a gallon in 2001, contending that the move would result in smaller and more dangerous cars.

Some advocates of the fuel economy measure, which was introduced by Senator Richard A. Bryan, Democrat of Nevada, accused Federal highway officials this week of suppressing, among other things, data that showed that the smaller cars driver would have survived the crash. Government officials deny they rigged the test or suppressed data.

Fundamental Questions
"This is all a red herring and a game they are playing," said Jerry Ralph Curry, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But these days, large vehicles, with wheelbases of 110 inches or more, account for only 14 percent of all cars on the road. And Federal statistics show that as the large cars become smaller and small cars larger, the importance of size decreases sharply as a safety factor....

Perhaps more important, accident reports collected by the insurance institute show a wide variance in the safety of different models within the midsize class and large midsize class, with wheelbases of 105 to 109 inches. In 1988 through 1990, for example, the Buick Century and Toyota Camry had the lowest rate of occupant injury claims relative to all other vehicles. But two other cars of similar size -- the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Stanza -- were among those with the highest injury claims.

As a group, midsize cars were safer than smaller cars when insurance claims are used as a guide. But some small two-door sedans outperformed some larger two-doors. For example, during the 1988 through 1990 period, the Ford Probe and the Plymouth Colt and Dodge Colt had higher safety ratings than larger two-doors like the Chevrolet Beretta, Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunbird.

William Gardner, the head of crash worthiness engineering for Transport Canada, a Government agency, said that among vehicles of similar size, a car's design is the critical factor.

"It could depend on how well a seat belt fits an occupant, Mr. Gardner said. Other important factors include the energy-absorbing characteristics of a vehicle's front end.

Seat Belts and Air Bags
A part of the confusion surrounding the current debate is the changing nature of car safety. In the past few years, the overall rate of highway deaths has fallen, during a time when the presence of smaller cars has grown. A major reason for this improvement is the increased use of seat belts. And as more cars are equipped with air bags, highway safety is likely to improve even more.

The General Accounting Office issued a recent report that found that the trend toward smaller cars has virtually no effect on highway safety....

Cars can get better gas mileage in two ways: through technological improvements or reductions in size....


I wrote a letter to the editor in response to this article.


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Last updated: 4 April 1999