The Toyota Camry and its hybrid counterpart are essentially identical to the naked eye. Peer closer and you might notice a leafy badge on one, and, if it's on a dealer’s lot, a slightly more startling MSRP on its sticker.
What you can’t tell is that one Camry is 25% safer than the other, despite their matching five-star safety ratings.
In a report released Thursday, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), says its comparison of 25 pairs of traditional car models and their hybrid counterparts shows a marked difference in car insurance injury claims. Every single hybrid in the HLDI data set had a lower death rate than its conventionally powered twin, even adjusting for differences in who buys the cars.
Hybrids are safer for their passengers because batteries are heavy, the HLDI says.
“Weight is a big factor,” says Matt Moore, the author of the report. “Hybrids on average are 10 percent heavier than their standard counterparts. This extra mass gives them an advantage in crashes that their conventional twins don’t have.”
HLDI, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is a big fan of hybrid technology to save gas, rather than buying a smaller car. Even in single-vehicle crashes, HLDI says, a bigger vehicle is more likely than a smaller car to bend, move or deform whatever it hits. (See “The safest ways to get 40 mpg.”)
Hybrid car insurance still isn't cheaper
The difference in injury claims hasn’t brought about a break on rates. In a head-to-head car insurance comparison, hybrids typically cost more to insure than their gas-powered twins, according to Insure.com’s recent look at hybrid insurance rates. The IIHS theorizes that’s largely because hybrids typically are used for long commutes and driven more miles.
And it might be because of the second part of the HLDI analysis: While hybrids might be safer for the passengers inside, they’re more dangerous for those passing by.
Looking at that same data, researchers isolated injury claims that were not paired with a related property damage claim. Researchers treated such claims as pedestrian injuries. Among hybrid vehicles, the incidence was 20 percent greater.
“When hybrids operate in electric-only mode, pedestrians can’t hear them approaching,” Moore says. “So they might step out into the roadway without checking first to see what’s coming.”
Automakers face a 2014 deadline for finding an appropriate sound for electric cars. (See “What should an electric car sound like?”)
The best-selling Toyota Prius and the slow-selling Honda Insight were excluded from the analysis because each has no gasoline-only counterpart, HLDI says.