Arlington, Virginia – Although more states are allowing low-speed vehicles (LSVs) and mini-trucks on public roads, mixing them with regular traffic is a deadly combination, according to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). LSVs are designed for residential neighbourhoods and mini-trucks are for hauling cargo off-road and since they don’t have to meet basic vehicle safety standards, they are not designed to protect occupants in crashes.

“By allowing LSVs and mini-trucks on more and more kinds of roads, states are carving out exceptions to 40 years of auto safety regulations that save lives,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. “It’s a troubling trend that flies in the face of the work insurers, automakers and the federal government have done to reduce crash risk.”

Zuby said that almost every state allows LSVs, also called neighbourhood electric vehicles, on certain roads, mostly with speed limits of 35 mph (56 km/h) or lower. Eight years ago, only slightly more than 12 states permitted them, but now 46 do, and while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines appropriate performance and safety standards, it has no say in where LSVs are driven. “The same goes for mini-trucks, which are legal to operate on some roads in 16 states, even though they weren’t designed to meet U.S. safety or emission standards,” Zuby said. “The trend to grant mini-trucks access to regular roads began in 2007 and is growing at a quick pace. On one hand you have NHTSA saying these vehicles were meant for low-risk, controlled environments or farm use, and on the other hand, states are pushing them out onto the highways.”

Because they are intended for low-risk driving, such as in gated communities, NHTSA does not require LSVs to have airbags or other safety features beyond seatbelts. Most mini-trucks in the U.S. are imported as used right-hand-drive vehicles from Japan, a country where they can be operated on roads as long as they pass inspection every two years; vehicles that fail inspection are often exported to North America. Known as Kei-class vehicles, they are smaller than conventional pickups and weigh about 1,500 lbs (680 kg). They must be imported with governors to limit their speeds to 25 mph (40 km/h) or less to be exempt from the Clean Air Act provisions, but can go much faster.

In 1998, NHTSA established safety standards for LSVs to be used on “short trips for shopping, social and recreational purposes, primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses.” They must be able to go at least 20 mph (32 km/h) but no faster than 25 mph (40 km/h) and must be equipped with headlights, taillights, stoplights, turn signals, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, safety belts and vehicle information numbers. Mini-trucks were not an issue when the LSV rules were written, and in 2006, NHTSA amended the standards to include vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings up to 3,000 lbs (1,360 kg), but in 2009 said that because mini-trucks are not manufactured to meet U.S. safety standards, it could not endorse their use on public highways. It is estimated that there are 45,000 LSVs on U.S. roads.

To show that LSVs and mini-trucks are no match even for the smallest cars, the IIHS tested two GEM e2 electric vehicles and a Changan Tiger Star mini-truck. The GEMs were crashed in side tests, one using a moving deformable barrier, the other a Smart Fortwo as the striking vehicle. The Tiger struck a Ford Ranger XL regular-cab pickup in a frontal offset test; the Ranger earns only an “acceptable” rating in IIHS frontal crash tests, the lowest in its vehicle class. The test dummies in the GEMs and Tiger recorded indications of seriously debilitating or fatal injury to drivers in real-world crashes, while “the Smart performed well and the Ranger reasonably so in similar crash tests,” the IIHS said.

“There’s a world of difference between vehicles that meet crashworthiness standards and those that don’t,” Zuby said. “It may be time for Congress to step in to extend federal passenger vehicle safety standards to LSVs or else restrict them to the low-risk traffic environments they were designed to navigate.”

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