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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 5 | May 20, 2010 Subscribe

Low-speed vehicles aren't crashworthy, new tests show

If vehicle size and weight influence crashworthiness — and they do — then small electric vehicles and minitrucks are even less crashworthy than the smallest cars. Low-speed vehicles (LSVs) are designed for tooling around residential neighborhoods, and minitrucks are for hauling cargo off-road. These vehicles are fuel-efficient and cheap to own but aren't built to protect people in crashes and don't meet all federal motor vehicle safety standards. The problem is that states now are allowing them on busy public roads alongside larger, faster-moving vehicles. Environmentalists are lobbying to expand their use, as tax credits make buying some of these golf-cart-like vehicles practically free. New Institute crash tests show the deadly consequences of mixing these vehicles with regular traffic.

"By allowing LSVs and minitrucks on more and more kinds of roads, states are carving out exceptions to 40 years of auto safety regulations that save lives," says David Zuby, the Institute's chief research officer. "It's a troubling trend that flies in the face of the work insurers, automakers, and the federal government have done to reduce crash risk."

Practically every state allows LSVs, also called neighborhood electric vehicles, on certain roads, mostly with 35 mph or lower speed limits. Eight years ago just over a dozen states permitted them (see "Souped-up golf carts hit the streets," April 6, 2002). Now 46 do. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines appropriate performance and safety standards but has no say in where LSVs are driven. The same goes for minitrucks, which are legal to operate on some roads in 16 states, even though they weren't designed to meet U.S. safety or emission standards. The trend to grant minitrucks access to regular roads began in 2007 and is growing at a quick pace.

"On one hand you have NHTSA saying these vehicles were meant for low-risk, controlled environments or farm use, and on the other hand states are pushing them out onto the highways," Zuby points out.

LSVs are essentially souped-up golf carts that were envisioned as a low-cost, eco-friendly way to tool around gated communities in the Sun Belt where they would have little interaction with larger vehicles. NHTSA doesn't require LSVs to have airbags or other safety features beyond belts since they are intended for low-risk driving. Most minitrucks in the United States are used right-hand-drive vehicles imported from Japan, where they can operate on roads as long as they pass inspection every 2 years. Vehicles that fail often end up exported to North America. Also known as Kei-class vehicles, minitrucks are smaller than conventional pickups and weigh about 1,500 pounds. They must be imported with governors to limit speeds to 25 mph or less to be exempt from Clean Air Act provisions but can go much faster.

NHTSA in 1998 established safety standards for LSVs to be used on "short trips for shopping, social, and recreational purposes primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses." They must be able to go at least 20 mph but no faster than 25 mph. Basic features are required: headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, safety belts, and vehicle identification numbers.

Minitrucks weren't an issue when NHTSA wrote LSV rules. The agency in 2006 amended the standards to include vehicles with gross weight ratings up to 3,000 pounds, and now 4 states require minitrucks to meet LSV standards. Still, NHTSA believes minitrucks should keep off the road. In a July 2009 letter of interpretation, the agency said that because "these vehicles are not manufactured to meet U.S. safety standards, NHTSA cannot endorse their use on public highways."

The Energy Department estimates there were 45,000 LSVs on U.S. roads in 2008. New LSVs qualify for up to a $2,500 tax credit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States also offer tax incentives.

Even though LSVs aren't designed to mix with fast-moving traffic, Alaska and Texas recently decided to give them access to public roads with posted limits up to 45 mph. Alaska Senator Bert Stedman, who sponsored his state's bill, says this "new breed of vehicles is a growing sector of the auto industry and can help provide cheaper, sustainable transportation."

As Stedman notes, LSVs are environmentally friendly and cheap to own. So what's not to like? Plenty when it comes to sharing the road with larger vehicles.

Zuby says that "lost amid the talk about so-called sustainable transportation is any regard for the safety of people who ride in LSVs and minitrucks. We're all for green vehicles that don't trade safety for fuel efficiency."

For eco-minded consumers, a better choice for regular traffic is a crashworthy hybrid like the Toyota Prius or another fuel-efficient car. Also worth a look are the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, two battery-powered cars slated for delivery later this year.

Crash tests demonstrate risk

To show that LSVs and minitrucks are no match for even the smallest of regular cars and pickups, Institute researchers tested two GEM e2 electric vehicles and a Changan Tiger Star minitruck. The GEMs were in side tests, one using a moving deformable barrier and the other using a Smart Fortwo as the striking vehicle. The Smart is the smallest passenger vehicle on U.S. roads that meets crashworthiness standards. The Tiger struck a Ford Ranger XL regular cab pickup truck in a frontal offset test. The Ranger is one of the least pricey small pickup trucks on the market. It earns an acceptable rating in the Institute's frontal crashworthiness test, the lowest rating in its vehicle class.

The test dummies in the GEMs and the Tiger recorded indications of seriously debilitating or fatal injury to drivers in real-world crashes. In contrast, the Smart performed well and the Ranger reasonably so in similar crash tests.

"There's a world of difference between vehicles that meet crashworthiness standards and those that don't," Zuby says. "It may be time for Congress to step in to extend federal passenger vehicle safety standards to LSVs or else restrict them to the low-risk traffic environments they were designed to navigate."

Congress in 2009 asked NHTSA to study the safety and fuel-economy ramifications raised by the expanded use of low-speed vehicles on 40 mph or slower roads.

GEM tests

The first GEM test was a side impact in which a moving barrier representing a pickup or SUV crashes into the test vehicle at 31 mph. It's the most demanding test the Institute runs. Dummy measures suggest severe or fatal injury to a real person. In contrast, the Smart's airbags and safety cage protected the dummy from serious injury in an earlier side barrier test.

To show that the injury risk isn't only due to the aggressive barrier, a second test was run with a Smart crashing into a stationary GEM at 31 mph. The Smart's front intruded into the GEM's side so much that the belted dummy's head came close to hitting the Smart's windshield. The GEM dummy had injury measures indicating serious or fatal injury for real occupants.

"Watch the test footage, and it's obvious how devastating the side crash is to the GEM. It doesn't resist the crash forces at all," Zuby says. "GEMs and other LSVs weren't designed to protect people in a crash with a microcar like the Smart Fortwo, let alone larger cars, SUVs, and pickups in everyday traffic."


DANGER AHEAD: Low-speed crashes with larger vehicles are risky for people in LSVs like this GEM involved in an Arizona crash on a mixed-use road bordering a community college and airport. Traveling at about 10 mph, the GEM driver turned left into the path of a Dodge pickup just behind her in the adjacent lane. The pickup driver braked but couldn’t stop in time. The truck hit the GEM’s rear driver side and spun it around. The woman driving the GEM was ejected out the passenger side and landed about 20 feet away. Police say she suffered a concussion. Ejection is a common problem when golf-cart like vehicles crash because most don’t have doors. In Florida a man was ejected from the GEM he was driving when it was hit in the side by a Ford Ranger pickup at 20 mph in an intersection. The GEM driver’s leg was broken. In another Florida crash, a woman was injured when she was thrown from a GEM in a 25 mph collision with a Honda Element.

People in GEMs are protected by little more than safety belts and thermoplastic body panels. Doors are optional, though the crash-tested models had them. GEM e2 prices start at $7,395.

Chrysler Group Global Electric Motorcars, the largest producer of low-speed electric vehicles, makes GEMs. The company notes its vehicles comply with LSV standards limiting maximum speeds to 25 mph and says customers typically drive GEMs on roads with speeds of 35 mph or less. It "recommends the operation of GEM vehicles within the standards set forth by NHTSA."

Most states limit LSVs to 35 mph or slower roads, but it's clear that even these speeds — 31 mph in the side tests — can be fatal. Another problem is that even though LSVs are limited to 25 mph, other vehicles go faster, so it's wrong for states to imply that traveling on 35 mph public roads is safe for them. NHTSA's recommendation that LSVs should be restricted to low-risk roads extends beyond speed limits to describe the nature of roads suitable for LSVs.

"Driving to the clubhouse is a lot different from driving to Walmart," Zuby says. "LSVs are great for short trips on quiet roads but not busy ones."

Frontal test of Tiger

The Institute conducted a frontal offset test between a 2008 Tiger Star minitruck going 25 mph and a 2010 Ranger going 35 mph. The Ranger has standard front and side airbags and electronic stability control. The Tiger has safety belts but no airbags. Without airbags, the Tiger driver dummy's head hit the steering wheel hard. Measures indicate the likelihood of serious neck injury. In contrast, the Ranger dummy emerged unscathed.

The Tiger's outdated cab-forward design put the dummy's legs into the crush zone, resulting in severe injuries. The left leg and right foot were trapped by the clutch pedal and intruding structure. It's the kind of damage the Institute routinely saw when it began offset tests in 1995.

Unlike most minitrucks, Tiger Trucks aren't used imports. They are assembled with U.S. and foreign parts in Oklahoma. The company says its vehicles aren't intended for use on public roads and notes that some models meet LSV and emission standards.

Minitrucks are fuel-efficient but not necessarily environmentally friendly since their classification as off-road vehicles exempts them from emission requirements. They run on gasoline, diesel, gasoline/ethanol blends, or battery power, depending on the model. Prices typically start at about $7,000-$8,000 and can go much higher.

For on-road driving, Zuby recommends consumers bypass minitrucks and spend more on a standard pickup to get crash protection and a vehicle that's okay to drive on all roads.

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