Time and again, electric vehicles (EVs) have been shown to be as safe, or even safer, than conventional fuel powered vehicles. A combination of factors—including manufacturers’ commitment to safety and unique design characteristics—mean EV drivers can be confident that their vehicle is among the safest on the road.
However, industry and regulators do not take this for granted. EVs must meet the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards used by fuel-powered vehicles while also meeting extensive safety requirements for battery packs. The design of EVs—with a large battery pack at the base of the vehicle—creates a lower center of gravity compared to fuel-powered cars. Having a lower center of gravity not only improves handling, but also reduces the chances of a rollover.
Still, some common misconceptions about EV safety continue to mislead potential drivers, most notably around battery fires and the higher weight of electric vehicles. Let’s take a closer look at these claims.
Reports of EV battery fires have been sensationalized by media outlets during the past few years, despite statistical analysis indicating that gas-powered and older vehicles are more likely to catch fire. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “does not believe that electric vehicles present a greater risk of post-crash fire than gasoline powered vehicles.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were 208,500 vehicle fires in 2021. While the NFPA does not track fires by type of vehicle, we know that the chance of any vehicle catching fire was 0.07 percent (208,500 fires ÷ 286 million vehicles). Compare that to the most well-known fire-related EV recall—the Chevy Bolt back in 2021, which was recalled after 16 fires among 141,000 models or 0.01% fire occurrence—and we know that a recall will occur long before any EV becomes a fire risk. Meanwhile, in its own analysis of fires between 2012-2021 Tesla—which has a 62% EV market share in the US—found that one EV fire occurred for every 210 million miles traveled, compared to one ICEV fire for every 19 million miles traveled.
The makeup of EV batteries adds a degree of fire safety because thermal runaway takes longer to develop compared to a gas fire, with visible signs and smells before a thermal event (fire) takes place—this differs from fuel-powered vehicles, which can quickly ignite due to a spark or a flame. Even in light of the low likelihood of a fire, EV manufacturers are making significant efforts to ensure safety for drivers and non-drivers alike. This includes preventative safety measures to protect the battery, such as strengthening the battery’s protective case and incorporating efficient cooling systems and flame-retardants to improve battery stability. Manufacturers have also developed fail-safe measures designed to shut down the battery when it senses a collision or other issue that could lead to thermal runaway. Finally, manufacturers and regulators conduct extensive testing to determine how the battery will react under various conditions—like overcharging, extreme temperatures, and water immersion.
Advocates have also been aggressive in informing first responders on the differences between internal combustion engine vehicles and EV fires. The NFPA, of which ZETA is a member, has developed training for fire departments specifically focused on strategies and techniques to safely and effectively respond to EV fires. Manufacturers are also regularly updating their guidance on how to address fires and alerting first responders on best practices.
Electric vehicles are heavier than their fuel powered counterparts. This reality has been a point of concern for critics, who posit that the increased weight presents a safety concern for those outside the vehicle. Unfortunately, these critics tend to ignore the fact that vehicle weight for all models has increased over the past few decades, and that this issue is not exclusive to EVs. Their arguments also ignore why vehicle weight has increased, largely due to consumer choice (e.g., larger batteries result in longer range) and the perceived safety benefits that a larger vehicle provides its occupants.
Despite their finger pointing, this pushback is highlighting a larger important issue—driver, pedestrian, and cyclist safety. Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities have increased since 2010, accounting for 19% of all U.S. traffic fatalities and about 76,000 pedestrian and 47,000 cyclist injuries per year. Compared to other high-income countries, the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in this area. As for where and why these collisions occur, the Centers for Disease Control notes that alcohol was involved for the driver and/or pedestrian in nearly half of all crashes that resulted in a pedestrian fatality, with the majority occurring in urban areas, away from intersections, and at night.
There are many factors at play here, but to argue that the issue is due to heavier EVs is factually inaccurate. The real issue here is that we need to reduce collisions. To do this, we need to analyze where collisions occur and design our roads in a way that prevents this from happening. Managing speed and ensuring that there are safe and well-lit street crossings and sidewalks, as well as protected bike infrastructure, has been shown to significantly improve safety. While there has been limited public support for these efforts in the past, moods are changing and funding is becoming available—including from provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, both of which have funding specifically set aside for improving road design. Notably, this includes $5 billion over the five years to the Safe Streets for All program.
While infrastructure investments are important to reducing collisions, manufacturers are also implementing new technologies to further reduce collisions and protect both drivers and non-drivers. Among ZETA’s light-duty vehicle membership, Tesla, Lucid, and Rivian all have safety features designed to prevent collisions.
The following entities have a significant amount of research and information on both EVs and general vehicle safety: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Safety Council, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). You can also learn more about specific vehicle safety features by visiting the vehicle manufacturer’s website.