Does High Fuel Economy Mean a Sacrifice in Safety?

Crash testing can help identify a car's level of safety to occupants.

Crash testing can help identify a car’s level of safety to occupants.

When we select an automobile based on fuel-efficiency, we’re usually left with no choice but to pick from the smallest of cars – those that are in the sub-compact/compact to the mid-sized classes. In fact, in this year’s bumper crop of cars with the  highest EPA estimated fuel economy are all in these classes of cars.

So, Do I Give Up Safety with these Smaller Cars?

We should get this question out of the way first thing, even if it does seem anti-climatic.

Yes, you’ll give up some safety by selecting a smaller car.

While smaller cars are designed with safety in mind, “safety” is a relative term. Just as it’s a given that the smallest cars normally provide the highest fuel economy, it’s also a given that generally speaking, the larger a car is, the safer it is. Larger cars simply offer more protection to both drivers and passengers in car wrecks, so you will give up some potential for safety.

Size, Mass and Weight: Each Contributes to Safety

There’s a good reason why larger cars provide more safety than smaller ones do. The size, mass and weight of a car directly relates to how it performs in a wreck. That performance will translate into how providers will price car insurance policies.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government agency that’s charged with crash testing new cars in the United States indicates that the heavier a car is, the better is will protect you in a crash or collision. This holds even more true when that crash or collision involves more than a single car.

In the decades in which the NHTSA has been crash testing cars, they’ve collected data that indicates that drivers and passengers have a greater risk of death if they’re in a vehicle that is hit with either a frontal or side impact by a heavier – or higher – car, truck or SUV.

This means most compact cars are at a distinct disadvantage from the get go, just based on physics, unless a collision involves another compact car. Collisions or wrecks with much larger cars, trucks and SUVs and compact cars usually have one “winner” – and that’s the larger car, truck or SUV.

Stripped of Safety Features?

Most of the fuel efficient cars are not simply smaller, but many of them represent the entry-level choices from automakers. While this usually isn’t the case with mid-sized cars, it isn’t uncommon to see compact cars that lack any considerable upgrades in terms of safety. Value priced means value produced, in many cases.

If you’re buying a compact or sub-compact car, or really, any car, you should look to get as many advanced safety features as possible. You’ll be safer, of course, but you’ll also get a lower-priced car insurance premium. Here’s a short list of our recommendations of these sorts of safety features:

  • Airbags. Look for advanced airbags, including head-protecting side impact air bags, curtain airbags, knee airbags for the driver.
  • All-wheel drive (AWD). All-wheel drive systems apply power from the engine to all four wheels of a car.
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS). ABS prevents out-of-control skids. These systems best any human driver’s capabilities.
  • Collision systems. This will include things like engineered crumple zones and use of beams to brace intrusion points such as doors.
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC). ESC will become standard equipment in all new 2012 cars sold in the United States due to congressional mandate.
  • Traction control (TC). TC will help to prevent wheel spin from environmental or driver-based conditions.

How to Get the Safest, High MPG Car

While choosing a car with the safety features we’ve listed above goes a long way towards improving the survivability in a wreck, they’re not all you should consider if you’ve decided you’re going to choose a smaller car for fuel economy.

Of course, you should consider the NHTSA’s crash ratings, but if you’d prefer a one-stop shop, a great place to start is by looking at the IIHS Top Safety Picks. The IIHS, or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an insurance company funded safety organization. Each year, they identify and award cars in every class as their “Top Safety Picks.” In 2011, the IIHS awarded fifteen small compacts and sub compact cars with their coveted Top Safety Picks in 2011.

Yes, you’ll trade some overall level of safety by selecting a car with high fuel economy. That doesn’t mean you have to select a patently unsafe car. Many of these small cars are filled with advanced safety features and have demonstrated they offer high survivability in collisions through crash testing.

About Cecil Helton

Cecil Helton Cecil Helton is a U.S.-based writer and editor with passions for cars, motorcycles, boats, technology and social media. Much of his professional life since 1996 has been web-centric, and he’s written and developed content on a variety of subjects. His work in the houseboat industry received wide acclaim, such as winning the 1999 Cisco Systems Growing with Technology award and being named one of five finalists in the manufacturing sector of the 2000 Computerworld-Smithsonian Awards. As an Air Force brat, he spent much of his childhood in a two-year cycle of moving to a new place, making new friends, establishing a life, and then moving again. Destinations included: Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, the Greek isle of Crete, California and Ohio. Today you’ll find Cecil coping with his 15 year old son’s decision to pursue a motorcycle license at the same time he gets his driver’s license, being active across the web on multiple social media sites, and of course, writing articles and creating content on automotive and car insurance related topics right here at

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