There was a lot of attention given a recent federal test of the new Smart fortwo. The little coupe received what was, on the whole, the highest possible kudos following a series of crash tests.
The microcar also was rated “good” last week by the influential Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Indeed, five of the 17 cars on the IIHS “good” list are in the small-car category. A dozen years ago, there were none, notes Joe White, of the Wall Street Journal.
I frequently field calls from nervous parents ready to buy the first set of wheels for their children. “How big a car or truck should I get?” the conversation usually begins. And in decades past, I would have suggested “really big.” In 1996, the death rate in the very largest of vehicles, say a Lincoln Town Car or Crown Victoria, was 76 per 1 million registered vehicles. For the few minicars on the road, the numbers were 165 deaths per million.
In 2006, the most recent year for which IIHS data is available, the death rate fell to 41 in very large vehicles, but just 106 in minicars. Over the same period, the statistics dropped from 126 to 99 in small cars, such as the Ford Focus or Toyota Corolla.
Yes, the parents among you might still want to put a lot of sheet metal between your children and the rest of the world (never mind your own bodies). But the statistics remain stunning in what they reveal about small-car safety, as White notes in his column.
How have the numbers improved so dramatically? Technology is certainly a factor. Even the lowest-priced cars now come equipped with the latest in airbag systems. And it’s not uncommon to find vehicles like the fortwo featuring several different passive restraints: frontal airbags, thorax bags, and air curtains.
Active safety also plays a role, with systems like anti-lock brakes and stability control helping avoid potentially fatal accidents in the first place.
Technology comes into play in another way: automotive design. Not all that long ago, a manufacturer might be forced to run dozens of crash tests before a vehicle was certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Several generations ago, Chrysler received an unexpected blow when its then-new minivans fell short of anticipated ratings due to errors in design and testing.
These days, makers have largely eliminated most of those gruesome crash tests, conducting much of their research in the computer, and running final prototypes into a barrier only for final federal validation. Computer-aided design and engineering systems allow for rapid and frequent revisions that can make a major difference in a vehicle’s crash survivability.
A video that ran on YouTube shows a jaw-dropping Smart fortwo crash test in which it seemed like the impact forces simply flowed around the passenger compartment. That’s precisely what engineers look to accomplish, in fact. Honda, for example, has developed its ACE structure. Short for Advanced Compatibility Engineering, it goes beyond the typical automotive crumple zones, channeling crash energy into specifically engineered body elements that steer clear of the passenger compartment.
So while it may still be argued that you and your kids are best off in a big car, during a crash, be aware that even some of the smallest vehicles now on the road are meeting the tough challenge of keeping you safe during a crash.