The federal government says it isn't willing to trade highway safety for fuel economy in denying 4 petitions that sought to increase the maximum gross vehicle weight for low-speed vehicles and also launch a class of medium-speed vehicles. The September decisions by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mean that the weight and top speed of these golf cart-like vehicles, which don't have to meet all the safety rules that apply to cars, remain capped at 3,000 pounds and 25 mph.
"While NHTSA agrees with the importance of environmental issues, the agency believes that it is neither necessary nor appropriate to significantly increase the risk of deaths and serious injuries to save fuel," the agency said in denying petitions from Environmental Motors, Porteon Electric Vehicles Inc., and Mirox Corporation. The companies asked the agency to create a class of medium-speed vehicles with speed capabilities of up to 35 mph, arguing they'd fill a need for fuel-efficient vehicles for use in fast urban traffic.
They're known as neighborhood electric vehicles, street-legal golf carts, and minitrucks, among other names (see "Souped-up golf carts hit the streets," April 6, 2002). These electric or gasoline-powered low-speed vehicles are designed to haul people and cargo on private land, such as retirement communities, farms, amusement parks, and construction sites, but they're often driven on public streets.
Forty-six states regulate their use, with most limiting their speed to no greater than 25 mph on public roadways with speed limits of no more than 35 mph. They're exempt from most federal safety standards that apply to cars, and they aren't required to meet any criteria for vehicle crashworthiness, so they'd be out of their league in crashes with other vehicles going 35 mph.
Electronic Transportation Applications had sought to increase the maximum allowable gross vehicle weight for electric-powered low-speed vehicles to 4,000 pounds.
In denying Electronic Transportation Applications' petition, NHTSA said, "We believe that vehicles over 3,000 pounds are capable of complying with the full requirements" of the federal motor vehicle safety standards. Increasing the allowable gross vehicle weight, NHTSA said, "would encourage the use of [low-speed vehicles] in circumstances where it could pose an unreasonable risk to safety." The agency noted that some of the smallest passenger cars — Honda Insight and Toyota Echo, for example — have gross vehicle weights of about 3,000 pounds or less and still comply with safety standards.
Federal crash databases don't include a specific category for low-speed vehicles so it's hard to track their crashes. News reports frequently chronicle deaths and injuries that result when these vehicles collide with larger passenger vehicles.