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Death by the gallon
James R. Healey. USA TODAY. McLean, Va.: Jul 2, 1999. pg. 01.B
 

Abstract (Document Summary)

More broadly, in the 24 years since a landmark law to conserve fuel, big cars have shrunk to less-safe sizes and small cars have poured onto roads. As a result, 46,000 people have died in crashes they would have survived in bigger, heavier cars, according to USA TODAY's analysis of crash data since 1975, when the Energy Policy and Conservation Act was passed. The law and the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards it imposed have improved fuel efficiency. The average of passenger vehicles on U.S. roads is 20 miles per gallon vs. 14 mpg in 1975.

Small cars -- those no bigger or heavier than Chevrolet Cavalier or Dodge Neon -- comprise 18% of all vehicles on the road, according to an analysis of R.L. Polk registration data. Yet they accounted for 37% of vehicle deaths in 1997 -- 12,144 people -- according to latest available government figures. That's about twice the death rate in big cars, such as Dodge Intrepid, Chevrolet Impala, Ford Crown Victoria.

And small cars don't have the weight to protect themselves in crashes with other vehicles. When a small car and a larger one collide, the bigger car stops abruptly; that's bad enough. But the little one slams to a stop, then instantly and violently accelerates backward as the heavier car's momentum powers into it. People inside the lighter car experience body-smashing levels of force in two directions, first as their car stops moving forward, then as it reverses. In the heavier car, bodies are subjected to less-destructive deceleration and no "bounce-back."
Full Text (2518 words)
Copyright USA Today Information Network Jul 2, 1999


A USA TODAY analysis of previously unpublished fatality statistics discovers that 46,000 people have died because of a 1970s-era push for greater fuel efficiency that has led to smaller cars.

Californian James Bragg, who helps other people buy cars, knows he'll squirm when his daughter turns 16.

"She's going to want a little Chevy Cavalier or something. I'd rather take the same 10 to 12 thousand bucks and put it into a 3-year-old (full-size Mercury) Grand Marquis, for safety.

"I want to go to her high school graduation, not her funeral."

Hundreds of people are killed in small-car wrecks each year who would survive in just slightly bigger, heavier vehicles, government and insurance industry research shows.

More broadly, in the 24 years since a landmark law to conserve fuel, big cars have shrunk to less-safe sizes and small cars have poured onto roads. As a result, 46,000 people have died in crashes they would have survived in bigger, heavier cars, according to USA TODAY's analysis of crash data since 1975, when the Energy Policy and Conservation Act was passed. The law and the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards it imposed have improved fuel efficiency. The average of passenger vehicles on U.S. roads is 20 miles per gallon vs. 14 mpg in 1975.

But the cost has been roughly 7,700 deaths for every mile per gallon gained, the analysis shows.

Small cars -- those no bigger or heavier than Chevrolet Cavalier or Dodge Neon -- comprise 18% of all vehicles on the road, according to an analysis of R.L. Polk registration data. Yet they accounted for 37% of vehicle deaths in 1997 -- 12,144 people -- according to latest available government figures. That's about twice the death rate in big cars, such as Dodge Intrepid, Chevrolet Impala, Ford Crown Victoria.

"We have a small-car problem. If you want to solve the safety puzzle, get rid of small cars," says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The institute, supported by auto insurers, crash-tests more vehicles, more violently, than all but the federal government.

Little cars have big disadvantages in crashes. They have less space to absorb crash forces. The less the car absorbs, the more the people inside have to.

And small cars don't have the weight to protect themselves in crashes with other vehicles. When a small car and a larger one collide, the bigger car stops abruptly; that's bad enough. But the little one slams to a stop, then instantly and violently accelerates backward as the heavier car's momentum powers into it. People inside the lighter car experience body-smashing levels of force in two directions, first as their car stops moving forward, then as it reverses. In the heavier car, bodies are subjected to less-destructive deceleration and no "bounce-back."

The regulations don't mandate small cars. But small, lightweight vehicles that can perform satisfactorily using low-power, fuel-efficient engines are the only affordable way automakers have found to meet the CAFE (pronounced ka-FE) standards.

Some automakers acknowledge the danger.

"A small car, even with the best engineering available -- physics says a large car will win," says Jack Collins, Nissan's U.S. marketing chief.

Tellingly, most small-car crash deaths involve only small cars -- 56% in 1997, from the latest government data. They run into something else, such as a tree, or into one another.

In contrast, just 1% of small-car deaths -- 136 people -- occurred in crashes with midsize or big sport-utility vehicles in '97, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that enforces safety and fuel-efficiency rules. NHTSA does not routinely publish that information. It performed special data calculations at USA TODAY's request.

Champions of small cars like to point out that even when the SUV threat is unmasked, other big trucks remain a nemesis. NHTSA data shows, however, that while crashes with pickups, vans and commercial trucks accounted for 28% of small-car deaths in '97, such crashes also accounted for 36% of large-car deaths.

Others argue that small cars attract young, inexperienced drivers. There's some truth there, but not enough to explain small cars' out-of-proportion deaths. About 36% of small-car drivers involved in fatal crashes in 1997 were younger than 25; and 25% of the drivers of all vehicles involved in fatal wrecks were that age, according to NHTSA data.

Gas shortage worries

U.S. motorists have flirted with small cars for years, attracted, in small numbers, to nimble handling, high fuel economy and low prices that make them the only new cars some people can afford.

"Small cars fit best into some consumers' pocketbooks and driveways," says Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer-activist organization in Washington.

Engineer and construction manager Kirk Sandvoss of Springfield, Ohio, who helped two family members shop for subcompacts recently, says that's all the car needed.

"We built three houses with a VW bug and a utility trailer. We made more trips to the lumber yard than a guy with a pickup truck would, but we got by. Small cars will always be around."

But small cars have an erratic history in the USA. They made the mainstream only when the nation panicked over fuel shortages and high prices starting in 1973. The 1975 energy act and fuel efficiency standards were the government response to that panic. Under current CAFE standards, the fuel economy of all new cars an automaker sells in the USA must average at least 27.5 mpg. New light trucks -- pickups, vans and sport-utility vehicles -- must average 20.7 mpg. Automakers who fall short are fined.

In return, "CAFE has an almost lethal effect on auto safety," says Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who sides with the anti-CAFE sentiments of his home-state auto industry. Each year, starting with fiscal 1996, he has successfully inserted language into spending authorization bills that prohibits using federal transportation money to tighten fuel standards.

Even if small cars were safe, there are reasons to wonder about fuel-economy rules:

* Questionable results. CAFE and its small cars have not reduced overall U.S. gasoline and diesel fuel consumption as hoped. A strong economy and growing population have increased consumption. The U.S. imports more oil now than when the standards were imposed.

* Irrelevance. Emerging fuel technologies could make the original intent obsolete, not only by making it easier to recover oil from remote places, but also by converting plentiful fuels, such as natural gas, into clean-burning, competitively priced fuel. And new technology is making bigger, safer cars more fuel efficient. The full-size Dodge Intrepid, with V-6 engine, automatic transmission, air conditioning and power accessories, hits the average 27.5 mpg.

"Improved fuel economy doesn't necessarily mean lighter, inherently less-safe vehicles," says Robert Shelton, associate administrator of NHTSA.

* Cost. Developing and marketing small cars siphons billions of dollars from the auto industry. Small cars don't cost automakers much less to design, develop and manufacture than bigger, more-profitable vehicles. But U.S. buyers won't pay much for small cars, often demanding rebates that wipe out the $500 to $1,000 profit.

Consumers pay, too. Though small cars cost less, they also depreciate faster, so are worth relatively less at trade-in time. And collision insurance is more expensive. State Farm, the biggest auto insurer, charges small-car owners 10% to 45% more than average for collision and damage coverage. Owners of big cars and SUVs get discounts up to 45%. "It's based on experience," spokesman Dave Hurst says.

CAFE has been "a bad mistake, one really bad mistake. It didn't meet any of the goals, and it distorted the hell out of the (new-car) market," says Jim Johnston, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and retired General Motors vice president who lobbied against the 1975 law.

Here to stay

CAFE is resilient, although concern over its effect on small-car safety is neither new nor narrow.

A 1992 report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, says that while better fuel economy generally is good, "the undesirable attributes of the CAFE system are significant," and CAFE deserves reconsideration.

A NHTSA study completed in 1995 notes: "During the past 18 years, the office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress, the National Safety Council, the Brookings Institution, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the General Motors Research Laboratories and the National Academy of Sciences all agreed that reductions in the size and weight of passenger cars pose a safety threat."

Yet there's no serious move to kill CAFE standards.

Automakers can't lobby too loudly for fear of branding their small cars unsafe, inviting negative publicity and lawsuits. And Congress doesn't want to offend certain factions by appearing too cavalier about fuel economy. Nor, understandably, does it want to acknowledge its law has been deadly.

"I'm concerned about those statistics about small cars, but I don't think we should blame that on the CAFE standards," says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who supported CAFE and remains a proponent.

Pressure, in fact, is for tougher standards.

Thirty-one senators, mainly Democrats, signed a letter earlier this year urging President Clinton to back higher CAFE standards. And environmental lobbyists favor small cars as a way to inhibit global warming.

Although federal anti-pollution regulations require that big cars emit no more pollution per mile than small cars, environmental activists seize on this: Small engines typical of small cars burn less fuel, so they emit less carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide, or CO{-2}, is a naturally occurring gas that's not considered a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates auto pollution.

But those worried about global warming say CO{-2} is a culprit and should be regulated via tougher CAFE rules.

Activists especially fume that trucks, though used like cars, have a more lenient CAFE requirement, resulting in more CO{-2}.

"People would be much safer in bigger cars. In fact, they'd be very safe in Ford Excursions," says Jim Motavalli, editor of E: The Environmental Magazine, referring to a large sport-utility vehicle Ford Motor plans to introduce in September. "But are we all supposed to drive around in tanks? You'd be creating that much more global-warming gas. I demonize sport utilities," says Motavalli, also a car enthusiast and author of the upcoming book Forward Drive: The Race to Build the Car of the Future.Not all scientists agree that CO{-2} causes global warming or that warming is occurring.

Seeking alternatives

Worldwide, the market is big enough to keep small cars in business, despite the meager U.S. small-car market of 2 million a year. Outside the USA, roads are narrow and gas is $5 a gallon, so Europeans buy 5 million small cars a year; Asians, 2.6 million.

Automakers are working on lightweight bigger cars that could use small engines, fuel-cell electric vehicles and diesel-electric hybrid power plants that could run big cars using little fuel.

But marketable U.S. versions are five, or more likely 10, years off. That's assuming development continues, breakthroughs occur and air-pollution rules aren't tightened so much they eliminate diesels.

Even those dreamboats won't resolve the conflict between fuel economy and safety. Their light weight means they'll have the same sudden-stop and bounce-back problems as small cars. Improved safety belts and air bags that could help have not been developed.

IIHS researchers Adrian Lund and Janella Chapline reported at the Society of Automotive Engineers' convention in Detroit in March that it would be safer to get rid of the smallest vehicles, not the largest.

Drawing on crash research from eight countries, Lund and Chapline predicted that if all cars and trucks weighing less than 2,500 pounds were replaced by slightly larger ones weighing 2,500 to 2,600 pounds, there would be "nearly 3% fewer fatalities, or an estimated savings of more than 700 lives" a year. That's like trading a 1989 Honda Civic, which weighs 2,000 pounds, for a '99 Civic, at 2,500 pounds.

Conversely, the researches conclude, eliminating the largest cars, SUVs and pickups, and putting their occupants into the next-size-smaller cars, SUVs and pickups would kill about 300 more people a year.

Market skepticism

U.S. consumers, culturally prejudiced in favor of bigness, aren't generally interested in small cars these days:

Car-buying expert Bragg -- author of Car Buyer's and Leaser's Negotiating Bible -- says few customers even ask about small cars.

Small-car sales are half what they were in their mid-'80s heyday. Just 7% of new-vehicle shoppers say they'll consider a small car, according to a 1999 study by California-based auto industry consultant AutoPacific. That would cut small-car sales in half. Those who have small cars want out: 82% won't buy another.

To Bragg, the reasons are obvious: "People need a back seat that holds more than a six-pack and a pizza. And, there's the safety issue."

That hits home with Tennessee dad George Poe. He went car shopping with teen-age daughter Bethanie recently and, at her insistence, came home with a 1999 Honda Civic.

"If it would have been entirely up to me, I'd have put her into a used Volvo or, thinking strictly as a parent, a Humvee."

 

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Myths about small cars

Myths about small cars are strong. Here are two of the most common and why they are wrong:

1 Small cars have a high death rate because they get hit by those big sport-utility vehicles all over the roads.

Fact: In 1997, latest-available government data, 56% of small-car fatalities involved only small cars: 46% from single-car crashes, 10% from small cars running into each other. Just 1% of small-car deaths in 1997 involved collisions with midsize and large SUVs -- 136 out of 12,144 total small-car deaths that year.

2 Small cars are necessary because they pollute less than big cars.

Fact: Federal regulations impose the same pollution restrictions on all cars, big and small. The limits are stated in "grams per mile" of acceptable pollution, not in grams per gallon of fuel burned. Thus, a large Lincoln Town Car with a V-8 engine can't legally pollute more in a mile, or 10 miles, or 1,000 miles, than a tiny Chevrolet Metro with a three-cylinder engine driven the same distance.

Beetle shines in rating of crashworthiness

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization supported by auto insurers, has found only one small car that "turned in a good overall performance" in IIHS 40-mile-per-hour crash tests -- the 1998-99 Volkswagen New Beetle. IIHS named the car a "best pick," a designation not given any other small car.

Here, in order, is how IIHS rates other recent-model small cars it has tested for overall crashworthiness.

Average
'99 VW Jetta/Golf
'96-'99 Honda Civic
'98-'99 Toyota Corolla/Chevrolet Prizm
'98-'99 Hyundai Elantra
'97-'99 Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer
'95-'99 Saturn SL
'98-'99 Nissan Sentra
'99 Mazda Protege

Marginal
'00 Dodge/Plymouth Neon

Poor
'97-'99 Mitsubishi Mirage
'98-'99 Kia Sephia
 

FOR TEXT WITHIN GRAPHIC "What is a small car?" PLEASE SEE MICROFICHE
[Illustration]
GRAPHIC, Color, Illustration by Jim Sergent, USA TODAY; PHOTO, Color, Insurance Institute For Highway; GRAPHIC, B/W, Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY, Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; PHOTO, B/W, AP