Hybrid cars safer – and more dangerous

Hybrid cars: Occupants have fewer injuries in crashes than passengers in conventional cars, new study says. But hybrid cars cause more pedestrian accidents.

Leslloyd F. Alleyne/Journal Inquirer/AP/File
In this September file photo, instructors from 38 fire departments across the state view a hybrid vehicle during a train-the-trainer course at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks, Conn. Attendees of the course learned procedures in handling accidents involving all-electric and hybrid cars.

Hybrid cars are safer — or more dangerous — depending on whether you are behind the wheel or walking across a street, according to a study released Thursday.

Occupants in hybrid vehicles suffer fewer injuries in crashes than those who are involved in accidents in conventional cars, said the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But the same study also found that hybrids, which tend to be quieter — cause more pedestrian accidents than their nonhybrid counterparts.

The findings were unveiled as automakers rolled out dozens of new hybrids at the L.A. Auto Show, which opens to the public Friday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

BMW showcased its i8 plug-in hybrid and i3 all-electric concept cars designed to combine the efficiency of a commuter with the exhilaration of a sports car. The i3 will have the distinction of being the first premium electric vehicle to come to market in 2013.

The i8 plug-in hybrid, scheduled to follow one year later, can travel about 20 miles on electric power alone. Together, the engine and motor can reach a top speed of 155 miles per hour and make 390 horsepower. BMW anticipates that the car will get 78 miles per gallon.

The i3, also wrapped in lightweight carbon fiber, will be able to travel up to 100 miles on a charge and reach top speeds of 93 miles per hour.

Volvo also said it plans to add a diesel-electric hybrid to its lineup. Further details on its four-cylinder and diesel-electric plans will be announced at the North American International Auto Show in January in Detroit.

The study by the highway safety research group suggests that the weight of hybrids contributed to the 27 percent decrease in bodily injuries for those riding in the vehicles.

Batteries and other components add to the curb weight of hybrid cars, making them heavier than the gas-only version of the same car.

A hybrid Honda Accord sedan can weigh 480 pounds more than a conventional Accord. Larger vehicles absorb impacts better than smaller ones, the study said.

At the L.A. Auto Show, automakers said that driver behavior might play a bigger role in crashes and injuries.

"The (hybrid) driver is typically not as aggressive," said David Lee, a Toyota representative who specializes in knowledge of the Prius models.

"Because they are more concerned about maximizing fuel economy and making sure that they are getting every mile out of the gallon," said Joseph Telmo, a Toyota representative who works directly with the Camry brand.

For pedestrians, the risk of injury from hybrid cars is 20 percent greater than from conventional gas models. The quiet electric motors, once touted as one of the benefits of the hybrid vehicles, have become a safety hazard for walkers.

"When hybrids operate in electric-only mode, pedestrians can't hear them approaching," said Matt Moore, vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute and an author of the report. "So they might step out into the roadway without checking first to see what's coming."

This year Congress gave the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety three years to come up with a requirement for equipping hybrids and electric models with sounds to alert unsuspecting pedestrians.

Toyota has already found a solution. The 2012 Toyota Camry hybrid and Prius emit a noise that is similar to the sound of an electric engine that increases in pitch as the car comes closer to an object.

Ford is hard at work trying to find the perfect artificial sound that will alert but not annoy pedestrians when ahybrid is approaching, said Chad D'Arcy, a Focus electrical marketing manager. This summer, the company asked fans on Facebook to pick their favorite sounds out of four options.

Honda hybrids are not as quiet as their competitors' versions, a representative said. Engine noise is mostly present because the 2012 Honda CR-V hybrid and other hybrid models primarily run on the gasoline motor. The battery is there only to assist.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight were excluded from the study because the vehicles are sold only ashybrids.

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