Shock Prevention for Hybrids

Safety experts urging car makers to add sun visor safety label that lets rescuers know if vehicle is hybrid-electric, especially now that new crop of hybrids look identical to conventional models.

Published: 05-Jan-2005

class=intro-copy>The latest wave of gas-electric hybrid vehicles, which look nearly identical to conventional-powered models, is renewing fears about how to protect emergency workers from electrocution risk when responding to a crash.

Since the first hybrids were introduced, emergency workers have been concerned because hybrids use high-voltage batteries to power electric drive systems. They can pack a lethal jolt of electrical current that could potentially be exposed in a crash.

Automakers have provided emergency workers with information about how to safely approach the vehicles after an accident and how to cut them open to remove crash victims.

But while the first mass-produced hybrids — Honda Insight and Toyota Prius — were easy to recognize as hybrid-only models, automakers now are packing hybrid systems in the same metal skin as standard models. As a result, some crash rescue experts want safety labels on driver's side sun visors to instantly inform first responders whether they are dealing with a hybrid.

Among those building or planning difficult-to-distinguish models:

Ford Motor. Ford just started selling a hybrid version of the Escape small sport-utility vehicle. It is virtually identical to the gas-powered Escape.

Honda. Joining the Civic hybrid introduced in 2002, a hybrid Accord just went on sale. It looks the same as the original except for a different badge, a small rear wing spoiler and radio antenna, spokeswoman Sara Pines says.

Toyota. Lexus' hybrid SUV, the RX 400h, will be the same as the original except for the little "h" in its nameplate, plus a different grille and taillight design, says John Saia, Toyota's technical training manager. The new SUV goes on sale April 15, to be followed two months later by a hybrid Toyota Highlander.

General Motors/DaimlerChrysler. The two giants are going to cooperate on hybrid technology for SUVs to be introduced in 2007. GM will tap the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. DaimlerChrysler will re-outfit the Dodge Durango.

The sun visor safety label "would tell the emergency responder what the vehicle is equipped with," says Daryl Newport, district chief for Palm Beach County (Fla.) Fire Rescue. "Is it a hybrid? Where are the air bags? It's something we want to know."

Among the hybrid's special hazards are that its electric engine is noiseless, yet the car could still be running. Emergency workers always need to shut down the engine before proceeding with a rescue, usually by reaching in and grabbing the key, Newport says. And at the rear of most vehicles, there's a method for shutting off the power so that it stays isolated to the battery.

Attaching the diagram on a sun visor "would be a blessing for us," says Ron Moore, a fire battalion chief in McKinney, Texas, who has written extensively on rescuing trapped crash victims. He says the idea was first suggested in the late 1990s when fears arose that undeployed air bags could pose a risk to firefighters cutting into vehicles, but it never went far.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had "extensive discussions" about protecting emergency responders in accidents involving hybrids but none about special labeling, spokesman Rae Tyson says.

Both Moore and Newport, who is former chairman of a transportation committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, say they don't know of any injuries to emergency workers while rescuing people from wrecked hybrid vehicles.

Toyota and Honda equip their hybrids with switches that shut down the electrical units when a crash is detected. Electrical cables are heavily insulated and distinctively colored. And, Moore and Newport point out, emergency workers have long had to watch out for threats in conventional cars, such as the potential for gas tank explosions.



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