Small Car Safety:

An Issue That Needs Further Evaluation

CED-82-29: Published: Apr 26, 1982. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 1982.

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GAO conducted a review of small car safety because of concern about the issue and because of disagreement over alleged safety problems. GAO reviewed numerous research studies as well as analyzed accident data gathered from New York, Michigan, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Few conclusions concerning current or future smaller car safety problems have been unanimously agreed upon by the vehicle and highway safety experts and the automobile industry. Major issues concern whether smaller cars are in more accidents, how well they protect occupants during accidents, and the adequacy of roads to safely contain smaller cars. GAO found that many studies concurred with New York and Michigan data indicating that smaller cars were not overrepresented in total vehicle accidents when compared with the numbers of smaller vehicles registered in those states. However, smaller cars were generally overrepresented in single-vehicle accidents with guardrails and, to a lesser degree, median barriers. When smaller cars collided with larger cars, smaller car occupants received from 2 to 4 times more severe and fatal injuries than the larger car occupants, according to NHTSA and New York data. NHTSA and New York data did not agree on the performance of smaller cars in collision with each other. New York data indicated that in single-vehicle accidents, the smaller the car, the more severe the injuries. Michigan and some NHTSA data showed no consistent trend between occupant injury and all classes of car injuries and fatalities in the heaviest cars. New York data indicated that severe and fatal injuries were more prevalent with smaller cars than with larger cars in single-vehicle collisions with utility and light poles.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In November 1982, hearings were held on small car safety research and technology. DOT testified at these hearings and stated that it had a number of activities underway that address the issues discussed in the GAO report and indicated that it was not planning any further action as a result of the report. Accordingly, the recommendation should be dropped.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should determine which smaller car safety issues need the Nation's greatest attention and which countermeasures can be used to reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities involving small cars. The Secretary should examine all relevant sources of available accident and test information, but emphasis should be given to using accident data. The Secretary should also: (1) establish standard units of measure to define all sizes of passenger cars; and (2) include an examination of the contributing effects of both the driver and roadway on smaller car performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In November 1982, hearings were held on small car safety research and technology. DOT testified at these hearings and stated that it had a number of activities underway that address the issues discussed in the GAO report and indicated that it was not planning any further action as a result of the report. Accordingly, the recommendation should be dropped.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should use one or more of the following techniques to determine which small car safety issues are most important: (1) organize a task force composed of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and NHTSA personnel, advisors from federal agencies, states, and industry, and vehicle and highway safety experts; (2) develop a special studies program on smaller cars to be carried out with the National Accident Sampling System teams and to be reviewed by both NHTSA and FHWA; and (3) develop a program to use accident data from several selected states on a continuing basis to supplement test data which is available.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In November 1982, hearings were held on small car safety research and technology. DOT testified at these hearings and stated that it had a number of activities underway that address the issues discussed in the GAO report and indicated that it was not planning any further action as a result of the report. Accordingly, the recommendation should be dropped.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should use the results of this examination to rank research priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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