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Video: IIHS report exposes dangers of low-speed vehicles

Consumer Reports News: May 20, 2010 03:44 PM

Those little electric semi-cars look appealingly green, but in a crash with a real car, the results would be disastrous, according to a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And that, in turn, highlights a conflict between safety and fuel efficiency.

The report criticizes states for passing laws allowing Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) and other low-speed vehicles onto public roads with speed limits of up to 45 mph. Low-Speed Vehicles (LSVs) are a legal classification of cars that are legally limited to a top speed of 25 mph, and aren't required to have air bags or to pass crash tests. NEVs are designed to serve within a confined place such as a retirement communality or college campus and are considered a type of Low Speed Vehicle.
According to the IIHS report entitled " Definitely Not Crashworthy," such LSVs were intended for use in gated communities, where they would have little interaction with larger vehicles. Yet 46 states now allow such LSVs on public roads with speed limits of 30 to 45 mph.

Compatibility between different-sized vehicles has always been a big safety problem. Such safety risks were further exposed in recent side-impact tests that the IIHS conducted on two GEM NEVs built by Global Electric Motorcars and a Changan Tiger Star trucklet.

Are LSVs a GEM of an idea?
It tested the two GEMs in side-crash tests, one using a Smart ForTwo as the striking vehicle, and the other using a deformable barrier designed to represent an SUV. The regular 31-mph side crash test is the toughest one IIHS conducts.

The results? Well, the GEM's driver would have died or been seriously debilitated if this test had been a real-world accident, according to the IIHS report.

"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," says David Zuby, IIHS's chief research officer.

Minitrucks such as the Changan Tiger Star are another issue. Some other models have only three wheels and therefore are considered as motorcycles, while other minitrucks meet the same standards as LSVs: safety belts, mirrors, head- and brake-lights, windshields, and turn signals, but no air bags or sophisticated safety structures. Further, they haven't been designed to absorb energy in a managed way around the occupants.

The IIHS crashed the Changan Tiger Star moving at 25 mph into a Ford Ranger pickup traveling 35 mph. The Tiger's dummy suffered severe "injuries," including a likelihood of serious neck injuries. The Ranger's dummy suffered no injuries.

The IIHS report and some NEV critics have called the vehicles "glorified golf carts." And in fact, they were originally used in Palm Springs, Calif., to drive around golf courses and were granted access to larger streets mainly to allow their drivers to take them from one golf course to another.

Then they began to be used to get around gated communities, and their drivers wanted to be able to take them to local stores. Some cities such as Lincoln, Calif., now have special lanes for NEVs.

NEV drivers and some environmentalists say that it doesn't make sense to require consumers to buy and drive cars that weigh 3,000 pounds and more, and cost $20,000 and up to make even short, local trips. They argue that low-speed vehicles are more appropriate for these trips, and that they are involved in very few accidents.

Dan Sturges, who designed the GEM neighborhood car in the early 1990s, says they shouldn't be considered cars. He intended them to be a safer alternative to motor scooters, one that offers some leg protection, stability, and better visibility to other drivers. He says he wishes IIHS had conducted the test between a GEM and a motor scooter. Incidentally, scooters with a top speed of 30 mph are also illegal on highways in most states.

Sturges says the problem is that people misinterpret them, and that "the NEV community is not up front with consumers about what they're getting. (Some NEV-makers are even advertising the vehicles for free after tax incentives.) "They don't have air bags, they're not full featured automobiles, and as long as the consumer doesn't think they are, why get rid of NEVs until you get motorcycles off the road," he says. "We're encouraging people to ride bicycles and take shorter trips to save energy, and [today] the next step up from that is an automobile that comprises 22,000 parts and is capable of going coast-to-coast. Should bicyclists be allowed on public roads?"

So it's a matter of perspective. "Lost amid the talk about so-called sustainable transportation is any regard for the safety of people who ride in LSVs and minitrucks," says the IIHS's Zuby. Thanks to this IIHS report, they're not lost anymore.

Consumer Reports believes that low-speed vehicles have their place, so long as they are used for what they were originally intended. But their incompatibility on public roads is a recipe for danger.

What do you think? Should NEVs be allowed on public roads? Are they a poor substitute for a real car, or a safer alternative to a motorcycle or bicycle? Let us know in the comments below.

Eric Evarts

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