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At first, you'd see them scooting around college campuses or large factories. Then retirees and the gated-community set hopped onboard. Now, low-speed vehicles and their more commercial cousin, the minitruck, are everywhere, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is not happy about it.
The IIHS doesn't have a problem with the vehicles themselves, but with how they're used. Souped-up golf carts are fine on golf course, and minitrucks are hunky-dory in certain environments. But within the past decade, nearly every state in the U.S. has passed laws allowing LSVs and minitrucks on public roads (typically those with speed limits of 35 mph or under), and unfortunately for drivers, those vehicles lack the features necessary to operate safely at those speeds.
To prove its point, the IIHS conducted crash tests on two GEM electric vehicles -- manufactured by Chrysler Group Global Electric Motorcars -- and a Changan Tiger Star minitruck. The GEMs participated in a side-impact test with a moving barrier, followed by one with a Smart fortwo. The Tiger took part in a frontal offset test with a Ford Ranger. Although neither the fortwo nor the Ranger are large vehicles, and although the crashes were staged at speeds between 25 and 31 mph, the damage to the occupants of the LSV and the minitruck was severe. According to IIHS analysis, the minitruck driver would've been seriously injured, and the LSV occupants would likely have been killed.
Unfortunately, the LSV and minitrucks segment is growing, and both federal and state laws are fueling demand. Today, 46 states allow LSVs on public roads. There's a federal tax credit of $2,500 on LSV purchases. They're also cheap rides, and since LSVs are typically electric, they play into the public's desire for green vehicles. The graying of the U.S. population is also a factor, resulting in more retirement and gated communities, which is precisely where LSVs and minitrucks thrive.
To make matters worse, no governmental agency seems to have control over these vehicles and their use on public roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has set out a limited number of safety standards for LSVs, including headlights, taillights, and safety belts, but there's no requirement that they have airbags. And minitrucks weren't even a blip on the radar when the LSV rules were written, meaning that they're the vehicular equivalent of Susan Boyle: no one really knows what to do with them. The harshest statement the NHTSA has released has been that "[because] these vehicles are not manufactured to meet U.S. safety standards, NHTSA cannot endorse their use on public highways." Not terribly harsh, is it?
Clearly, someone needs to step up to the plate and make a call to protect the owners and occupants of LSVs and minitrucks. Either manufacturers ought to be held responsible for upgrading their safety features, or states ought to scale back the places in which they can be used. Sorry, Florida: it's for your own good.