Here's the background: California, as part of its mandate for zero-emissions vehicles, has allowed automakers to earn credits for selling NEVs. The tiny vehicles, which essentially are golf carts and often do not have doors, travel 25 mph, tops. Several companies are poised to produce more than 42,000 next year for use in California and beyond.
Two-thirds of U.S. states have approved them for use on roads with 35-mph maximum speed limits. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires only that NEVs meet minimal safety standards. Headlights, seat belts, and turn signals are required, for example. Doors, bumpers and airbags are not.
Nor is crash-testing - or the level of structural integrity that would stand up to the forces of a 30-mph crash.
As NEVs become more popular, they will not be confined to golf courses and gated communities. Growing numbers of them will compete with brawny Excursions and swift Porsches for space on the road to the supermarket.
Safety advocates and some automakers - General Motors, for one - are right to be sounding alarms. Other parties should take action, too. Specifically:
n NHTSA must revisit its so-called standards for NEVs and accept some responsibility for their safety. If a vehicle looks like a car and competes for road space with a regular car, it should meet similar safety standards. If those standards force NEVs off Main Street, so be it.
n The California Air Resources Board must rethink its zero-emissions mandate and the use of NEV credits. CARB has to ask: Is the NEV provision really advancing the technology? We don't think it is. In addition, CARB can't wash its hands of the safety ramifications.
n The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety must put this issue on its radar screen. A respected voice must stand above the fray and speak for sanity.