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Generally, electric cars weigh considerably more than otherwise similar gasoline-powered vehicles because batteries are heavy. In terms of crash safety, that extra weight actually helps people inside electric vehicles. But what about pedestrians? A recent CNN article explored this, and pointed out the potentially deadly consequences of that weight disparity for the drivers of lighter cars.
Statistics for insurance claims reportedly show that people in electric vehicles are less likely to be injured in a crash than people in otherwise similar gas-powered vehicles. This could be due to the fact that EVs aren’t carrying a large metal engine under the hood, so they have more empty space that can cushion occupants. However, according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman Joe Youngthe, the same injury claims trends hold true for hybrid vehicles. Hybrids also have added weight from batteries, as well as an engine under the hood — making the difference largely attributable to sheer mass.
The Edition 1 version of the new GMC Hummer EV weighs over 9,000 pounds — roughly three times the weight of a Honda Civic. The Ford F-150 Lightning will weigh about 1,600 pounds more than a similar gas-powered F-150 truck. And the electric Volvo XC40 Recharge weighs about 1,000 pounds more than a gas-powered Volvo XC40.
As CNN explained, it comes down to physics. “When two moving objects hit one another, the heavier one will tend to carry on in more or less the direction it was going. The lighter one, on the other hand, will change direction abruptly. Even if that lighter vehicle doesn’t get smashed in, that jarring deflection is bad for the people inside. Meanwhile, for the people in the heavier vehicle that just punches its way through, that extra weight can be a lifesaver,” the article notes.
When a small car and a truck meet in a crash, the weight difference there is so large it would hardly make a difference if the truck was electric, said David Zuby, senior vice president for vehicle research at the IIHS. But when two passenger vehicles crash into each other, if one of them is carrying 1,000 pounds of batteries, that could make a difference in the outcome.
For pedestrians who get hit by electric vehicles, that extra weight is even more concerning. As noted by Streetsblog, a study of pedestrian fatalities dating back in 1988 categorically established that “the principal determinant of death is the weight of the vehicle concerned,” and that “injuries to all regions of the body increased with [the] age [of the pedestrian] and with the weight of the vehicle in the collision.” The same study also noted the prevalence of knockouts and severe head injuries among people struck by heavier cars, even if those cars weren’t necessarily tall enough to strike the walker at the level of the head or neck directly — because the walkers’ heads were more likely to strike the ground after they were pushed down by the additional force of a heavy automobile.
In an interview with Science Norway on the country’s EV boom, Oslo-based Institute of Transport Economics researcher Alena Høye warned that “if cars keep growing heavier they will be getting more dangerous,” and cited research that suggests that “if we all drove around in mid-weight cars [when we were not getting around in other ways], this would optimize chances for you and those you collide with.”
But given the small number of battery-electric vehicles on U.S. roads today, we won’t know for sure whether EVs are more fatal to walkers until researchers have enough domestic data to study any disparities in fatality rates.
Pedestrians in the U.S. died at a higher rate in 2020 than at any point in the last three decades, thanks in no small part to the SUV and pick-up truck market breaking all-time records just as speeding spiked on quarantine-emptied roads.
And yet, the average weight of passenger vehicles has been increasing for the past 40 years, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, going from an average of about 3,200 pounds to nearly 4,200 pounds. That’s largely due to consumer preferences shifting towards trucks and SUVs and those vehicles, themselves, getting heavier.