According to the latest crash test results, small cars offer the worst protection against whiplash injuries in the event of low-speed rear-end collisions.
This presents fleet managers considering switching to city cars to reduce fuel consumption and emissions with a dilemma – do they opt for cleaner but less safe city cars or go for more polluting but inherently safer larger cars?
The Minister for Transport, Jim Fitzpatrick, told fleet managers recently that they have a responsibility to ensure that they do all they can to protect the safety of their drivers.
"Ultimately employers have the task of managing safety in the workplace and that includes vehicles being driven for work," he said.
"People who drive for work are an at-risk group - 75% of all work-related deaths are out on the road."
But fleet managers not only have the Government pressuring them to ensure their drivers are as safe as possible, they also have growing pressure to ensure they are driving the cleanest vehicles possible.
When asked by Fleet News whether he would like fleet managers to use larger, more polluting but inherently safer cars or cleaner, less safe city cars, the minister said fleets were facing a “very difficult question”.
Indeed, so was he – not only is he minister for road safety, but he also has a brief within the Department for the Environment for reducing emissions within the transport sector.
He said the answer lies with manufacturers producing cleaner vehicles and with fleets training their drivers to be safer.
“I really don’t think the two can be separated,” he said.
“We have got a challenge to save the planet, but we also have a responsibility for people in the workplace in making sure their environment is as safe as possible.”
Fleet managers, said the minister, have to do their "best on both counts".
However, he would not say whether that meant fleets should reject city cars, which, according to the latest new vehicle head restraint ratings from Thatcham – the insurance industry’s research centre – cannot provide above an ‘acceptable’ whiplash safety rating.
Most rear-end collisions occur during low-speed city driving but smaller, lighter cars are intrinsically more dangerous, said Thatcham.
“City cars are not equipped to protect their occupants’ necks when they have to absorb the crash energy from larger, heavier vehicles, which combined with poor seat design, makes whiplash far more likely,” Thatcham crash research manager, Matthew Avery, said.
"Good seat design is not something that should be inherently linked to higher value cars and this latest set of results will hopefully act as a catalyst for vehicle manufacturers to look at improving seat and head restraints design within this important and growing sector."
The only two city cars to achieve the ‘acceptable’ rating were the Renault Twingo and the Smart Fortwo.
The majority of the other nine city cars were rated as ‘marginal’ with the current Ford Ka and Fiat Panda rated as ‘poor’.
Even the recently released Fiat 500 only achieved a ‘marginal’ rating.