Study: Hybrids are safer than traditional cars

Hybrid cars are safer for the planet than their traditional gas-guzzling counterparts. Now, we know that they’re safer for drivers and their passengers, too.

A new study from the Highway Loss Data Institute found that people riding in hybrid vehicles were less likely to be injured in a crash than passengers in the non-hybrid version of the same car.

hybrid car safety In the study, the Highway Loss Data Institute analyzed collision and injury claims filed between 2002 and 2010, comparing the data for more than 25 pairs of hybrid vehicles and their non-hybrid counterparts. Hybrid drivers and passengers were about 25 percent less likely to be injured in an accident compared to their standard-car twins, researchers found.

Don’t expect this study to lower auto insurance rates for hybrids, however -- at least not right away.

Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, calls the results of the study “encouraging." But, he notes, "auto insurers assess the frequency and severity of the claims they receive from certain vehicles over a long period of time when setting an auto insurance premium. There’s no definitive track record as yet to support whether hybrid vehicles will likely get into fewer accidents as compared to other types of vehicles over the long term.”

While you may not earn auto insurance savings as a hybrid driver, one of these eco-friendly cars could be a lifesaver.

The benefits of added weight

It’s not that eco-conscious drivers are more cautious on the road. In fact, “hybrids as a group tend to get into more crashes than their non-hybrid counterparts,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a sister organization of the Highway Loss Data Institute. He says those crash statistics likely stem from the fact that hybrid drivers tend to rack up more mileage than other drivers.

Instead, the lower likelihood of crash injuries is the result of hybrid vehicles’ extra heft compared with their non-hybrid counterparts. Hybrids typically are 10 percent heavier than standard models, thanks to their battery packs and other internal components. A hybrid Toyota Highlander SUV, for example, weighs 4,500 pounds, compared with 4,170 for the standard Highlander.

“The laws of physics dictate that bigger, heavier vehicles are more protective of occupants than smaller, lighter vehicles when there’s a crash,” Rader says.

When two cars collide, the larger car pushes the smaller car backward, causing less force to the larger car — and less likelihood of injuries to the people riding in the car.

Other safety concerns

The Highway Loss Data Institute study is a counterpoint to the findings of a previous study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration --- that hybrid vehicles, because of their quiet engines, are 20 percent more likely than conventional cars to be involved in accidents with pedestrians and cyclists.

In response to this study and other research that demonstrated that hybrid cars could threaten pedestrians’ safety, Congress approved the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010. The law requires all hybrid and electric car manufacturers to add sounds that activate when the vehicle is traveling at low speeds so that pedestrians and cyclists can be alerted to a car’s presence. Some hybrids already are equipped with optional noisemakers; all automakers eventually will be required to install these features in their hybrid models.

hybrid car safety1 Hybrid vehicles also may pose more hazards to firefighters, police officers and other first responders. Here are two reasons why:

• The vehicles' nickel-cadmium battery cells, which may cause injury through spillage.

• The vehicles' high-voltage, direct-current systems, which have the potential to cause electric shock. Hybrids typically carry 500 or more volts of electricity, which can cause severe injury or death, according to the NFPA Journal.

Because hybrid and electric cars are involved in only a small percentage of all car accidents, minimal information is available regarding accidents involving first responders. To avoid injuries and deaths among first responders who handle hybrid vehicle emergencies, the National Fire Protection Association has developed a safety training program.

A newfound benefit of going green

While hybrid vehicles may pose additional hazards to pedestrians and first responders, they are the safest — and most environmentally friendly — choice for drivers, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute study.

In the past, Rader says, the only way for automakers to boost fuel economy was to remove weight from a vehicle, which made passengers more vulnerable to injuries resulting from collisions.

However, the new study shows that “going green and saving on fuel don’t have to mean a safety hazard,” Rader says. “You can do those things and still provide even better protection for your family than you can while driving the gas-only versions of these vehicles.”

Although hybrid cars carry higher price tags than their standard counterparts, their market share is steadily rising. Hybrid sales for November 2011 were nearly 25 percent higher than the hybrid market share a year earlier.

“The more they’re available, the more you’ll see people buying them,” says Sherrice Gilsbach, associate editor of shopautoweek.com. She notes that the hybrid market often fluctuates from month to month in response to the rise and fall of gas prices.

Still, Gilsbach says the new study should help consumers think of hybrids as more than a great choice for fuel economy. “Hybrid manufacturers are offering consumers a great product,” she says.

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