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Hybrids safer -- unless you're not driving

By Posted : 11/21/2011

Highlander hybridHybrid cars are safer than regular cars when it comes to protecting passengers from injuries during crashes, but are more likely to be involved in pedestrian accidents, according to a new study.

On average, the odds of being injured in a crash were 25 percent lower for people in hybrids than for those in conventional vehicles, according to research by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Weight is a big factor," Matt Moore, HLDI vice president and an author of the report, said in a statement. "Hybrids on average are 10 percent heavier than their standard counterparts. This extra mass gives them an advantage in crashes that their conventional twins don't have."

The extra pounds come from battery packs and other parts needed for dual-power systems. For example, a hybrid Honda Accord midsize sedan typically weighs 480 pounds more than a regular Accord, while a hybrid Toyota Highlander weighs about 4,500 pounds compared to 4,170 pounds for a conventional Highlander, according to the HLDI.

When silence is not a virtue

In a separate analysis based on insurance data, though, the HLDI found that hybrids, which have quiet electric motors, may be as much as 20 percent more likely to be involved in pedestrian crashes with injuries than their standard counterparts.

"When hybrids operate in electric-only mode, pedestrians can't hear them approaching," says Moore. "So they might step out into the roadway without checking first to see what's coming."

The quieter electric motors are a growing safety concern as hybrids become more common, and it's one the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working to address. Under the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act signed by President Obama last year, the NHTSA has three years to come up with a requirement for equipping hybrids and electric models with sounds to alert unsuspecting pedestrians.

At least one company is inviting driver feedback for the process: Over the summer, Ford asked visitors to its electric vehicles Facebook page to offer suggestions for artificial engine sounds. The company still is working on a solution.

"The recent EV [electric vehicles] sound study that the Facebook community participated in provided great insights on the types of sounds that future customers are expecting to hear on the outside of the vehicle as upcoming federal mandates will require. Currently the vehicle will have a quiet experience," Chad D'Arcy, Ford Focus electric vehicle marketing manager, said during a Facebook chat on Nov. 10.

 "The VPNS [vehicle proximity notification system] is standard on all 2012 Prius V models," says Brian Lyons, safety and quality communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales. He says it will also be standard on the upcoming Prius Plug-in hybrid.

Tax credits and lower gas costs, but higher car insurance rates

Although the government offers tax credits in some cases for the purchase of hybrid cars – according to Toyota, owners of its 2012 Prius Plug-in may qualify for a federal tax credit of $2,500 --  and you save money on gas, auto insurance premiums can be higher for hybrids compared to their standard siblings. 

Our research shows the Toyota Highlander Limited hybrid model costs $359 more to insure annually, on average, than the regular Highlander Limited. The hybrid Highlander standard edition costs an average $349 more in car insurance than the regular Highlander.

The national average yearly premiums for 2011 models compare as follows, based on a 40-year-old single male driver, according to a commissioned survey from Quadrant Information Services:

  • Toyota Highlander Limited hybrid; four-door, four-wheel drive, utility 3.5 L -- $1,617
  • Toyota Highlander Limited; four-door, four-wheel drive, utility -- $1,258
  • Toyota Highlander hybrid; four-door, four-wheel drive, utility 3.5 L -- $1,538
  • Toyota Highlander; four-door, four-wheel drive, utility -- $1,189
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