Thursday, February 07, 2008
Mini-Cars: Being Smart About It
The WSJ is now free in substantial part. Tuesday's issue had an article on mini-cars either already on or soon to hit the market. These cars are/will be great on gas. But they will also be a little pricey, if one is looking for some style. Finally, there is this:
The factor that is perhaps most likely to keep potential buyers away from mini cars is the worry that they won't hold up in a crash, particularly if they collide with a larger vehicle. A spokesman with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the death rate for mini cars is 106 fatalities per million registered vehicles, more than double the 41 fatalities per million for very large models like the Lincoln Town Car.
Makers of small cars say the cars are designed to be as safe as possible in collisions. Smart's [Smart fortwo pictured above] marketing tackles the crashworthiness question directly. Smart dealerships even have the fortwo's frame on display without body panels to show the "safety cell" where passengers sit and energy-absorbing bumpers called "crash boxes." [Also above. I know it's confusing with actually two pictures above, but the crash box is in the picture without the driver.] The Smart hasn't been crash-tested yet, but the Insurance Institute plans to do so in the next month or two.
The Insurance Institute says cars in this category aren't good choices for drivers concerned mainly about safety. There are several fuel-efficient larger cars that offer far better occupant protection with only a small decrease in fuel efficiency.
"All cars have gotten safer, but you can't get away from the laws of physics," says Adrian Lund, president of the institute. "There's just less car there to protect you."
It seems to me that if you are making an economic analysis, where you would, of course, include price and gasoline costs over the useful life of the car, you must also assign a cost factor to the mortality and injury risk that you assume when you buy a car.
Maybe that would be all the market needed to deal with this question - requiring that on the sticker, there be a cost assigned to the mortality/injury risk, just as we now require some sort of MPG rating.
Beyond that, it may be that heavier cars ought to bear some extra expense burden, maybe in the form of taxes of some sort, in addition to the higher gasoline costs which they already face, to take into consideration the risk those cars present to others. Perhaps their manufacture should simply be limited. I know this sounds like anti-market heresy, but there you are. I'm still a Democrat.
Meanwhile, I'm driving the larger automobiles.