For me, watching motorists drive in some European cities can be amazing and frightening at the same time. Drivers are not only darting in and out of narrow streets, but they do so in heavy traffic near dense crowds of pedestrians. For many Europeans, the car of choice is the so-called “micro car” that fits so well into the European lifestyle. These tiny cars usually only fit two occupants and are designed without any back seat or real trunk. However, they also make parking a snap and keep fuel costs low.
Over the past 5 years, we’ve all seen how many of these micro cars have made their way to U.S. roads. In Washington State in particular, it’s hard for me to drive for more than a few minutes without seeing at least one micro car zipping by or neatly parked in a busy downtown area. It’s easy to see why, too: these cars cost less to buy, to insure, to fuel up, and owners can remain environmentally friendly while still enjoying the unique look of their rides. More recently, I’ve noticed how micro-cars are becoming the vehicle of choice for car-sharing services that allow customers to pay to drive “a la carte.”
But how well do these car translate into driving on this side of the Atlantic? It turns out that despite some favorable crash-test results, how well these cars fare in a crash has largely to do with what the other person is driving, the point of impact, and where the crash takes place. For example, a 2008 study conducted by the Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) concluded that the popular Smart Car For Two rated highly when it came to protecting occupants in front and side crashes. Despite having less size to absorb the energy from a crash, the vehicle’s structure, airbags, and restraints were designed to help occupants “ride down” an impact as much as possible. 
However, it’s important to note that even the IIHS conceded that “all things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better,” and that front-end crash tests were only done with vehicles with similar size and weight. Many cars in the micro class rate below average when it comes to overall protection from the common rear-end collision, due in part to the height difference in bumpers with other vehicles, particularly SUVs and trucks. The IIHS also indicated the risk of death is higher in crashes of smaller, lighter vehicles. For vehicles 1-3 years old during 2006, minicars experienced 106 driver deaths per million registered vehicles compared with 69 driver deaths in large cars.”
In weighing the pros and cons for your driving needs, remember to take these considerations into account before driving a micro-sized vehicle:
- Do you drive in the city or the suburbs? You are more likely to encounter smaller vehicles travelling at slower speeds in urban areas.
- How far is your commute? Fewer miles traveled at lower speeds leads to fewer and less severe crashes.
- Does your micro car offer every advantage possible to help reduce injury? Look for safety features such as: electronic stability control, 4-6 airbags in the cabin, and anti-lock brakes.