First off, the EPA website is quick to point out that “all light duty cars and trucks sold in the United States must meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.” This includes regulated and extensive testing regimes that apply to both gas powered AND electric vehicles. Concerns about battery safety mean that “EVs are designed with additional safety features that shut down the electrical system when they detect a collision or short circuit.”
The IIHS, or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), is an independent research organization that works to make cars and driving safer. They conducted two studies that show that EVs are as safe as gas powered cars, and may even be safer.
Here are a few more areas of concern, coupled with what the data actually shows.
Explosions and fires
Last year’s Chevy Bolt and Hyundai Kona recalls attracted a lot of negative attention to lithium ion batteries, but the risk of fire or explosion is greatly exaggerated. Battery electric vehicles actually have the lowest risk of fire, as compared to gas cars and hybrids. Data from the National Transportation Safety Board and Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that while gas cars saw fires in 1,530 out of 100,000 cars, battery electric vehicles had the fewest: 25 per 100,000. Hybrids, on the other hand, saw the most fires, at 3,475 per 100,000.
Another fact that should offer comfort is that there is no flammable gas in an EV. While gasoline can burst into flames on impact, high voltage batteries have automatic disconnects in the event of a collision, and there are manual disconnects for emergency responders (and mechanics). Of course, EV fires do still attract a lot of headlines, but as with any new technology, there is an adjustment period.
Lower center of gravity
One of the things that makes EVs so fun to drive is also what makes them so safe - their low center of gravity. Not only does this give EVs amazing cornering and handling, but it means they are hard to flip.
EVs have low centers of gravity because of where the battery sits, and also because of where they don’t have a big mechanical engine. EV battery packs weigh a lot - often 1,000 lbs for a mid-sized pack. This weight is located in the center of the car, usually under the cabin. Compare this to a gas car, which has a 300 - 500 lb. engine in the front of the car, mounted up off the floor a bit. When a gas car takes a tight turn, the weight of the car shifts from tire to tire, causing instability. This happens much less with a heavier, lower-to-the-ground EV battery.
Based on battery weight alone, it’s no surprise that EVs are heavy. We have a whole write up on it! Although this may sound like a negative, it’s been found that drivers and passengers in heavier vehicles are exposed to lower forces in multi vehicle crashes, and insurance data studied by the IIHS shows that “rates of injury claims related to the drivers and passengers of electric vehicles were more than 40 percent lower than for identical conventional models over 2011-19.” This data corroborates another HLDI study. The weight of both hybrids and full electrics is assumed to be the reason why.
Another reason why EV occupants may fare better in an EV is that they tend to offer the latest tech, including safety tech.
All that tech
Many EVs come with safety features such as forward collision protection and lane assist - standard. This may be an additional reason why insurance claims for people in EVs are lower than in ICE cars.
For instance, the Chevrolet Bolt is set to be one of the least expensive new EVs in 2023. Here’s the safety package that comes standard:
- Automatic Emergency Braking
- Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning
- Forward Collision Alert
- Front Pedestrian Braking
- Following Distance Indicator
- IntelliBeam, which automatically turns the high beams on and off as needed
Similarly, the Nissan LEAF, long known for practicality over luxury, comes standard with:
- Automatic Emergency Braking With Pedestrian Detection
- Rear Automatic Braking
- Rear Cross Traffic Alert
- Blind Spot Warning
- Lane Departure Warning
- High Beam Assist
Room to Improve: EV specific design
Although EVs are already pretty safe as compared to gas powered cars, they have the potential to be much safer. The most common car crashes are rear enders - when a car crashes into the vehicle in front of it. In a gas car, the engine goes in the front of the car, so it can’t be used as a crumple zone. In an EV, the battery can be placed anywhere, so the front and rear of the car could be used as extended crumble zones to absorb impact and protect occupants. However, many EVs are spin-offs of ICE cars, and the body styles need to be similar for ease of production. When an EV is designed apart from their ICE ancestors, even more safety can be designed in. As Mr. Bach of Lucid Motors explains to the New York Times, when an EV is designed from the ground up, without having to share a body style with a gas car, “the huge front trunk area is a perfect crumple zone…We can minimize the pulse, dissipate the energy over a beautiful, harmonious crumple zone.”
Pedestrians and Other Motorists
One last thing worth mentioning is that a lot of what makes EVs safer - heavy vehicles with low centers of gravity - mean that they can cause more damage to lighter cars in a collision. Remember, the same weight that protects you in an EV is absent in a smaller car.
Another safety concern relates to EVs' silent ride. Even though this is listed as a top perk for many drivers, it can pose a risk to pedestrians, cyclists, and wildlife who may not notice the car approaching. Early EVs showed a 20% increased risk of pedestrian injury and up to 57% increased risk of collision with a bike. Starting in 2019, a law went into effect requiring all hybrids and EV to emit a pedestrian warning noise when they are moving under 20 miles an hour - forward or back - to alert nearby people.
Overall, EVs are as safe as any other car on the road, and often much safer. As David Harkey, president of IIHS explains, “It’s fantastic to see more proof that these vehicles are as safe as or safer than gasoline- and diesel-powered cars…We can now say with confidence that making the U.S. fleet more environmentally friendly doesn’t require any compromises in terms of safety.”