The Public Policy

Crash Envy

When a "good" crash test score really isn't so great.

By 9.5.08

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Those crash test scores you read about are more than a little misleading. You read, "highest possible" or "Five stars" -- and conclude, reasonably, that the car in question must be pretty safe.

Well, maybe it is. But maybe it's not.

For example, I read news coverage the other day about the crash test performance of the new Smart ForTwo micro-car. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which along with the federal government is the main source for the crash test rankings you see advertised and talked about on the news, awarded the Smart car the highest-possible score -- "good" -- for crashworthiness in frontal and side-impact collisions.

Sounds wonderful, right?

The problem, though, is that the Smart car's "good" performance is only relative to other cars of its type. So while the Smart car is about as good as it gets for a micro-sized car, its performance is not nearly as good as the performance of a mid-sized or full-size car -- even if the mid-sized or full-sized car has a lower ranking (or fewer "stars") relative to other cars in its segment.

Size does matter -- at least, when it comes to crashworthiness.

The IIHS itself concedes the point; it just doesn't publicize it -- or try to educate consumers. IIHS President Adrian Lund says that the Smart car, being a tiny two-seater designed for in-city use, is not as likely to be used on the highways -- and thus, less likely to be involved in a high-speed crash, where its small size could become a huge liability, especially if the impact is with a fixed object such as a telephone pole.

Or a larger, heavier car.

Neither the IIIHS nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which does the crash testing for the government, makes these disparities clear to the general public. Quite the opposite, in fact. Each car -- from the smallest econobox to the mightiest luxury sedan -- gets the same-sounding "good" (or "average") rating and number of "stars." But if you think a 5,000 lb. S-Class Mercedes-Benz and a Smart ForTwo are equivalent in terms of their crashworthiness by dint of the fact that both have the same "good" rating and five "stars" -- you'd better read the fine print.

A MORE HONEST SYSTEM of rating the crashworthiness of new cars would be based on a single, objective standard -- for example, what happens when this car hits a fixed barrier at 40 mph? Not relative to other cars like it -- but compared to all others cars on the market, from the smallest to the largest.

Crash test results would not be tricked-up to make smaller, less crashworthy cars seem safer by comparing their performance only with cars that are comparable in size/weight. This way, consumers would clearly understand that a full-size car is almost always going to be much less likely to get you killed in the event of an accident than a compact or subcompact.

But we can't have that, of course. Too above board.

The irony of all this is that the self-styled "safety" gurus who obsess and preach and prattle about things like crashworthiness scores are precisely the ones responsible for the deceptive, dishonest IIHS and NHTSA crash ratings system. You'd think these people would want to warn the public about the inherent, built-in dangers of smaller, lighter cars relative to larger, heavier ones. It's no different from wearing -- or not wearing -- a seat belt. To argue (or allow people to believe) that a smaller car is just as "safe" as a larger/heavier car because it received a "good" rating in crash tests not governed by an across-the-board standard is the functional equivalent of letting people believe they're just as safe riding unbuckled as buckled up.

It's actually quite surprising that lawyers haven't seized on this business and filed a mighty class-action lawsuit on behalf of all the people -- probably tens of thousands of them -- who have been injured or even killed in smaller cars they assumed were he most crashworthy things on the road, based on "good" rankings and all those happy golden stars.

IT SEEMS CLEAR the real push is not for occupant safety; if it were, we'd hear a lot more about the virtues of bigger, heavier vehicles -- instead of the constant barrage of negative press about "gas hogs" and so on. Rather, the object seems to be to try to gull people into buying smaller, lighter cars by making them appear to be as safe as larger vehicles -- even though they almost never are or can be, given the realities of physical laws.

The "safety" lobby may be pulling this shuck and jive as part of a broader agenda to encourage people to purchase more economical cars, which are usually smaller cars. The elites at IIHS and within the federal government have long been fervent pushers of "downsizing" -- and it stands to reason they'd fudge the crash testing process (or obscure its results, anyhow) to make the smaller cars they favor for us seem more sensible.

But maybe you'd rather pay about more (even a lot more) for fuel if it means your next new car will be significantly more crashworthy. If so, keep in mind that larger is almost always safer.

No matter what the stars might be trying to tell (and sell) you.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.