Danger even in 'safe' small cars

The Insurance Institute crashes small cars into larger ones to show what could happen in real wrecks.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com senior writer

A Honda Accord crashes into a Honda Fit.
Toyota Camry crashes head-on with Toyota Yaris.
A Mercedes C-class crashes into a Smart ForTwo.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- American car buyers have been shifting away from larger vehicles, fearing higher gas prices, but they could be leaving themselves vulnerable in a crash, claims the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That's true even for small cars that get top crash-test ratings, the Institute said.

To demonstrate small cars' vulnerability the Insurance Institute crashed small cars head-on into mid-sized cars, then measured the effects on the crash test dummies strapped inside.

The small cars involved in all three tests - the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Smart ForTwo - had already earned top scores for front impact protection in the Institute's standard front impact test in which cars are crashed into a crushable barrier, not another car.

That test simulates two cars of roughly equal size hitting almost head-on.

In these new experimental tests the Institute wanted to show what would happen to a small car in a crash with a larger vehicle. So instead of crashing the cars into a stationary barrier, researchers created actual collisions between small and midsized cars.

This time, the same small cars that had top marks in regular crash tests earned poor ratings for impact protection.

"There are good reasons people buy minicars," said Institute president Adrian Lund in a prepared statement. "They're more affordable, and they use less gas. But the safety tradeoffs are clear from our new tests."

Even though small vehicles have become safer in recent years thanks to features like airbags and advanced seatbelts. Those same technologies are also used in larger vehicles, the Institute said.

All else being equal, occupants of a smaller vehicle will fare worse in a crash than those in a bigger one because of differences in weight as well as the lack of extra crushable metal to absorb the impact.

When a heavier object runs into a lighter one, the heavier object is more prone to keep traveling in its own direction while the smaller one gets bounced backwards, resulting in a much more severe impact for its occupants.

Car vs. car

In the case of the Honda Fit, which was crashed into a Honda Accord, the Fit's crash test dummy's head hit the steering wheel through the airbag, and showed a high likelihood of leg injury as well. There was also significant crushing of the Fit's passenger compartment.

The larger Accord's passenger compartment held up well, and the likelihood of injury was low, the Institute said.

In a crash with a Toyota Camry, the Toyota Yaris's door was "largely torn away" the Institute said. In both cars, the crash test dummy's head struck the steering wheel through the airbag, but only in the Yaris did that result in a serious likelihood of injury. The test dummy in the Yaris also suffered extensive crash forces on the the neck and leg as well as a deep gash in the right knee.

The ultra-small Smart ForTwo was knocked into an airborne 450-degree spin when it was smashed into a Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan. (Smart and Mercedes-Benz are both products of Germany's Daimler AG (DAI).) That contributed to "excessive movement" of the dummy inside, the Institute said. Injuries, especially to the head and legs, would be likely in a crash like this.

"The Smart is the smallest car we tested, so it's not surprising its performance looked worse than the Fit's," Lund said in the statement. "Still both fall into the poor category, and it's hard to distinguish between poor and poorer."

Manufacturer's respond

Toyota (TM), Smart USA and Honda (HMC) all took issue with the Insurance Institute's test, calling it an unrealistic portrayal of real-world crashworthiness.

"The test used an extremely high crash severity which is unlikely to occur in real world crashes," Smart spokesman Ken Kettenbiel said in a statement. "In fact, less than one percent of all crashes fall within these parameters."

Despite accounting for relatively few real-world crashes, front impacts like those depicted in the test account for roughly half of all occupant deaths in car crashes, said Insurance Institute spokesman Russ Rader.

Honda also called the test conditions "unusual and extreme," but said that it is concerned with the role of vehicle size differences. The carmaker says it does its own extensive testing on car-to-car impacts like these.

In all respects besides vehicle size, Rader said, the test mimics the same sort of crash tested in the standard barrier test. Therefore, for very small cars, this test may be even more realistic.

"If you're in a mini-car or a micro-car, almost anything you hit is going to be larger," Rader said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a private group financed by insurance companies. To top of page

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