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Electric Vehicles: Are They as Safe as Traditional Cars and Trucks?

The consumer desire and government mandates are putting more electric vehicles on the road than ever before, and that trend is only predicted to increase over time. If you’re contemplating buying an electric car, you may be thrilled about the lack of emissions but concerned about the availability of charging stations and the range of the vehicle between charges.

But should you also be worried about safety? Are electric vehicles safe in a car accident? What about fire risks? Is it true you could be electrocuted? Even the quiet nature of electric vehicles can pose deadly dangers. Read on to find out what you need to know before buying an electric vehicle.

Should You Worry About Thermal Runaway Fires?

The pictures and news accounts are horrifying. Battery explosions, fires burning out of control for hours on end—battery fires in electric vehicles have seriously impacted the image of electric vehicle safety. That impact may not be justified, however.

Thermal runaway can indeed pose massive problems with vehicles powered by lithium batteries. Thermal or mechanical failure, short-circuiting, or electrochemical abuse within battery cells can lead to a phenomenon known as thermal runaway, where the cell becomes super-heated and causes exothermic decomposition. As a result, the cell grows unstable and releases thermal and electrochemical energy, resulting in intense fire releasing toxic chemicals and sometimes an explosion.

Firefighters have spent hours and tens of thousands of gallons of water trying to put out these fires, while by comparison, they can extinguish a fire from a gasoline-powered engine in far less time with about only 300 gallons of water. Even worse, the lithium battery fires often reignite hours or even days later. The chemicals in most fire extinguishers are ineffective against lithium battery fires.

However, it is important to realize that while these intense fires are frightening, they are far rarer than fires in gas-powered vehicles. Additionally, many battery fires can be traced to improperly wired charging equipment and are not due to an inherent fault in the vehicles themselves.

Do Electric Vehicles Offer Enough Protection in Collisions?

While many people are concerned that electric vehicles seem lightweight and do not offer enough protection from serious injury in a car crash, factors other than fuel source generally play a much more substantial role in the severity of an accident. For example, the size and speed of the vehicles, a driver’s inattention, impairment, or failure to take evasive action have a much more significant impact on single-vehicle and multi-vehicle collisions

In fact, after studying ten years of data, researchers working in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the “crashworthiness” of electric cars is “typically similar” to cars with internal combustion engines. Researchers paid particular attention to the unique risks that apply only to vehicles with electric drive systems, including fire, electrolyte spillage, and electrocution.

A battery puncture in an accident could lead to a fire, but manufacturers are taking steps to reduce the risk. Some electric cars have been reengineered to locate the batteries far from common points of impact in head-on collisions and other types of accidents. In other vehicles, protective layers have been added around the batteries to reduce the likelihood that an impact could cause a fire and keep batteries from overheating. Dispersing batteries throughout the engine and adding firewalls and shutdown separators further decreases the risk that one overheated battery could set off a chain reaction.

Can Electric Cars Cause Fatal Shocks?

Many people are concerned that drivers and passengers could be shocked or even electrocuted in the event of a collision or battery malfunction. After all, electric vehicle batteries operate at approximately 400 volts, and shocks at less than 50 volts have been known to stop people from breathing. In addition, many electric cars have high-voltage electric wiring running throughout the vehicle, and if these lines are cut, exposure could lead to serious injury.  

However, it is rescue workers responding to accidents that have faced the most significant risk of shock from an electric vehicle. As a result, there is a movement to offer training in many locations to teach emergency crews how to identify high-voltage cables, disconnect battery switches, and cut through the vehicle’s door or chassis without being shocked.

If electric vehicle owners ensure that all charging facilities are installed and trained professionals complete vehicle repairs, the risk of electrocution is almost nonexistent.

Quiet Electric Vehicles Pose a Danger to Pedestrians and Bicyclists

The most significant risk posed by electric cars and trucks comes from what these vehicles don’t do for some people. For instance, they are quiet, especially when moving at low speeds where there is little or no noise from tires or wind buffeting.

While pedestrians and bike riders often enjoy quiet outings, they are often not as enthusiastic about quiet automobiles and trucks. These large vehicles approach in almost complete silence at low speeds, so pedestrians and cyclists may cross streets or make a turn without realizing that a high-speed vehicle is close by. To combat this risk, lawmakers are requiring manufacturers to include sound production mechanisms to create noise while electric vehicles are traveling at low speeds. However, this does not excuse drivers from their responsibility to watch for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and anyone in a vulnerable position on the roads.

Safe Battery Practices

To minimize the risks posed by electric vehicle batteries, manufacturers and consumers are advised to follow safe practices and take advantage of new safety features.

To reduce the weight of battery packs while still allowing them to hold the maximum charge, manufacturers have kept protective material to a minimum, making it easier for batteries to suffer damage. Those who drive electric vehicles are advised to keep them out of extreme heat and to avoid overcharging the batteries. Repeated overcharging could damage batteries and increase the risk of explosions. Similarly, electric vehicle owners should avoid “fast-charging” methods that can destabilize lithium batteries.

Other Factors to Consider That Can Affect Operating Costs and Safety

Before purchasing an electric vehicle, consumers need to consider additional factors that can increase challenges, expenses, and risks. While it’s no secret that electric vehicles cost more to purchase than gas-powered cars and trucks, they are also likely to cost more to repair. Electric vehicle ownership is rising, but repair options are still few and far between. This could tempt some electric vehicle owners to allow unqualified individuals to attempt repairs, which could be dangerous. The higher purchase price of electric vehicles also means that they cost more to insure.

Because many of the disastrous battery fires have occurred while electric vehicles were charging, owners need to be sure that they use only appropriately-wired charging stations both at home and while away from home. With charging facilities hard to find in some places, vehicle owners may put themselves at risk by charging in an unsafe location. Even at the ideal charging facility, recharging a battery pack in an electric vehicle takes much longer than refueling a traditional car with gasoline, so drivers need to plan their trips carefully.

The Benefits Outweigh the Risks for Many Drivers

Electric vehicles and gasoline-powered vehicles require fuel to operate, but electric vehicles are much more efficient. Based on average costs for gasoline and electricity, electric vehicles can travel roughly four times further for the same cost. That is because electric vehicles convert energy toward powering movement much more efficiently than gas-powered vehicles.

While electric vehicle repairs might be costly, these vehicles do not require repairs and service nearly as often as cars and trucks with gasoline engines. This is because there are fewer moving parts and fewer components to wear down. At the same time, modern electric vehicles operate with high performance and quick responsiveness, making them fun to drive.

And, of course, there is the environmental advantage. Electric vehicles do not create tailpipe emissions. Moreover, the electricity used to charge the battery can potentially come from renewable sources, including solar and wind power.

Deciding Whether an Electric Vehicle is Right for You

While some drivers have put their names on long waiting lists to buy electric vehicles as soon as they become available, others opt to wait for advances in safety and other technology. Unfortunately, there is too little data available to determine whether electric vehicles are more susceptible to road hazards and defects or the effects of inclement weather. However, when drivers adopt safe practices, such as avoiding driving while fatigued, there is reason to believe that electric vehicles will prove to be as safe or even safer than conventional vehicles because the batteries give the vehicles extra weight that can increase their stability.

Ultimately, each driver will need to decide whether the factors weigh for or against the purchase of an electric vehicle. While the safety risks are somewhat different with an electric car, they do not seem to be significantly greater or less than with a traditional vehicle, so that may not even factor in the decision.

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