Are Electric Cars Safe?

Electric cars offer an eco-friendly alternative to gasoline, but how safe are they?

Way back in 1977, Dr. William Haddon, the first president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), dreamed the future of electric cars.

“The promise must be that the socially responsible vehicle of tomorrow — whether powered by electricity, hybrid systems, conventional internal combustion engines, or diesel motors — will meet or exceed not only energy conservation and air pollution standards applicable to all vehicles in its class, but pre-crash, crash, and post-crash safety standards applicable to all such vehicles as well,” he said.

It took 22 years for the U.S. to see one half of that dream fulfilled: Honda released the nation’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid in 1999. The Honda Insight achieved record-breaking fuel economy (70 mpg highway!) and extremely low emissions. And, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it performed fairly well in terms of safety, earning 4 out of 5 stars for driver and front passenger safety.

But IIHS safety standards have grown far more stringent these days, demanding an even higher level of crashworthiness — including improved requirements for rear crashworthiness, rollover resistance, and a requirement for electronic stability control (ESC) — to garner their coveted Top Safety Picks listing.

Thankfully, hybrid and electric car manufacturers have delivered, thus fulfilling the other half of Dr. Haddon’s dream.

While today’s revamped Insights didn’t make the Top Safety Picks for 2011, 7 hybrids — plus the electric Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF — did.

The fuel-efficiency debate

Auto manufacturers, fuel efficiency experts, and safety gurus have long been engaged in a 3-way debate about the right way to make cars more fuel efficient. For a time the argument centered on a single solution: Make cars smaller and lighter. However, as safety experts pointed out, smaller and lighter cars are generally less safe than their bigger, heavier counterparts. (It’s just Newton’s laws of motion at work.)

Congress inadvertently sparked the debate in 1975 with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program. Driven by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo, Congress sought to lessen our dependence on foreign oil (and, as a bonus, improve air quality) by demanding increased fuel efficiency from U.S. automakers.

Automakers responded by creating smaller, lighter vehicles, which improved fuel efficiency by enabling the engine to do less work — and by using sales of these smaller cars to offset their gas-guzzling fellows.

The impact on safety proved staggering. According to a joint study by Harvard University and the Brookings Institution, this downsizing of vehicles contributed to a 14- to 27-percent increase in fatality risk to passengers.

Two years after Congress initiated the CAFE program, Dr. Haddon issued his call for vehicles that solved the fuel efficiency problem while maintaining safety standards — and now, in 2011, we’re finally seeing his call answered.

Vehicle safety, now electric

The Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt debuted in 2011. And aside from offering fantastically green ways to get around, they also offer outstanding safety.

So what makes the new breed of plug-in electrics so safe? Well, 3 things really.

First, carmakers have really refined vehicle designs in recent years, learning new and better ways to account for the dynamics of crashes. Now certain areas of cars crumple like aluminum cans to channel impact energy around and away from passengers, limiting the intrusion of parts into the passenger cabin. EVs benefit from these design innovations just like any other model.

Second, these green cars also have the whole panoply of familiar safety features, from electronic stability control to antilock brakes, advanced air bag systems to good-ole-fashioned seat belts.

Finally, the very equipment required to keep these electric cars going adds a final boost to their safety: weight. Though they’re both classed as small cars, the batteries they pack add significant pounds, bringing their total weight closer to that of mid-sized and even larger models. Those extra pounds give them a serious safety advantage over other small cars.

And as the cherry on top of the safety cake, as EVs and hybrids become safer and safer to drive, they also become more and more affordable to insure. Just a few years ago, it proved challenging to insure a hybrid or electric car at all, but today many insurance companies, yours truly included, offer increasingly competitive rates on EV insurance and hybrid insurance.

So if you’re looking for a safe car that comes in shades of green — the money-saving and eco-friendly kind, that is — you now have electric choices. And there’s reason to expect even more, as the IIHS will soon begin tests of more electric roadsters, including the Wheego LiFe 2-seater and Mitsubishi i-MiEV minicar.

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