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Smaller Cars Present Big Safety Problems

Rising gas prices are forcing consumers to give up their SUVs and pickups in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. On the one hand, this shift will greatly reduce the number of rollover incidents, a risk that accounts for 25 percent of all traffic fatalities each year. On the other hand, some experts, such as those at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, feel that the growing number of smaller cars on the road poses even greater risks. That’s because over 40,000 people were killed on U.S. roads in traffic-related accidents in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A little less than 18,000 of those victims were riding in passenger cars at the time of the accident.

Certain design features of smaller cars place their occupants at greater risk in the event of a crash. These cars are lighter and more flexible, which means they bend more easily upon impact. In fact, when a small car hits a fixed-object like a telephone pole with its front-end, especially at a high speed, it can cause such a deep intrusion, that the engine can be pulled from its mounts, and hurled through the firewall towards the occupants.

To prevent this hazard, automakers are learning how to make smaller cars stronger. The first priority is to find ways to maximize the amount of energy they can absorb in crashes, so that they will be less resistant to severe damage upon impact. One method is to design these cars using higher-strength steel. The other alternative is to use materials like aluminum and forged alloy. While these materials have the strength of steel without the weight, the downside is they are far more expensive. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the learning curve for developing these structural changes is extremely long, which means that it will be a quite some time before these improvements are available to the public.

Although they have design flaws that make them vulnerable in high-speed collisions, smaller cars have some features that actually give them an advantage over larger vehicles. Smaller cars are more likely to avoid accidents than heavier ones because they can stop more quickly and are easier to maneuver. They are also equipped with collision avoidance technologies that are designed to prevent the car from becoming involved in a traffic accident.