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Hybrids safer for drivers, less so for pedestrians, study says

November 17, 2011|By Angel Jennings
  • Dianne Whitmire, fleet director at Carson Toyota, stands next to a Prius hybrid. A new study say occupants in hybrid vehicles sustain fewer injuries in crashes than those who are involved in accidents in conventional cars.
Dianne Whitmire, fleet director at Carson Toyota, stands next to a Prius… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Hybrid cars are safer -- or more dangerous -- for people on the road depending if you are behind the wheel or walking the streets, according to a study released Thursday.

Occupants in hybrid vehicles sustain fewer injuries in crashes than those who are involved in accidents in conventional cars, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The same study says that hybrids cause more pedestrian crashes than their nonhybrid counterparts.

That's good news for drivers and bad news for walkers.

The study suggests that the weight of hybrids contributed to the 25% 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. Larger vehicles absorb impacts better than smaller ones, the study says.

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," added Joseph Telmo, a Toyota representative who works directly with the Camry brand.

For pedestrians, the risk of injury from hybrid cars is 20% 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.

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“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."

Earlier 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.

Honda does not have that problem. A representative said that engine noise is always present on the 2012 Honda CR-V hybrid and other hybrids models because the engine is constantly running.

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