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Insurance study warns about small-car danger

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported this week that the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and the Smart Fortwo, three very small new vehicles touted for their light environmental impact, performed poorly in crash safety testing.  In testing that simulated head-on collisions with mid-size vehicles, with each model traveling at 40 miles per hour, the three minimodels suffered a disproportionate deceleration (and likely greater injuries to the occupants).  While the heavier vehicle changed speed by 27 mph on impact, the minimodels decelerated by 53 mph [essentially being driven backward at 13 mph immediately upon impact]; they were far more likely to be sent airborne and spun.

The correlation between vehicle weight and safety was already well-established.  In studies from the mid-1990s, the National Academy of Science concluded that reducing vehicle weights to improve fuel economy would cost 1300 to 2600 additional highway deaths each year.  For years, it has been reported that wearing a seat belt in a small car does not protect the occupant as well as driving unbelted in a large vehicle.  Researchers have recommended, among other solutions, designing light cars that incorporate large, energy-absorbing crush zones to better protect occupants on impact.  Reductions in speed limit and horsepower have also been suggested, to no avail:  average horsepower is 70 percent higher today than it was in the mid-80s, according to the New York Times analysis of April 14, 2009.

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