Toyota Prius

Toyota has sold more than 240,000 hybrid vehicles and none have caused injury to rescuers, according to a company spokesperson.

Hybrids first went on sale seven years ago in America—starting with the 2000 Honda Insight—but fears of potential dangers related to the high-voltage systems have inspired a recent wave of news stories and fueled online bulletin-board discussions. Concerned groups have focused on the possible dangers associated with the systems used to power the vehicles, questioning the risks the electric components might pose in the event of an accident.

The hybrid vehicles offered by Ford, Honda, Lexus, Toyota, and Mercury—whose Mariner twin to the Ford Escape is now available as a hybrid—run on a combination of electric power and a conventional gasoline engine. While their overall designs differ, they all use a large battery pack to energize an electric motor (or motors) sharing drive duties and space with a gasoline engine. It is that battery and the high-voltage cables routed under the passenger compartment connecting it to the motor(s) that cause the greatest concern.

Some emergency responders have raised questions about the likelihood of battery explosions or leaks, with the leading concern being electrocution hazards if high-voltage cables are exposed to bare metal, passengers, or rescuers. As more manufacturers plan to add hybrid models to their lineups, scrutiny on this latter issue has been increasing.

SAFETY MEASURES

In an effort to allay these fears, the manufacturers post manuals outlining rescue procedures online, and they have provided safety courses to emergency workers, including hands-on training. The bottom line, according to Honda training instructor Jesus Almeida, is that hybrid vehicles cause no greater concern for passengers or rescuers in the event of a collision than other vehicles. However, laden with similar loads of gasoline, antifreeze, and other potentially dangerous fluids, hybrids don't pose any less danger, either.

"If you do what you're supposed to do, it's no different from any other car," Almeida said.

Ford Spokesperson Nick Twork said, "There's a very, very low likelihood that anybody would be injured with the precautions that are built into the vehicle. It should be no different than dealing with any gasoline-powered car."

Ford, Honda, and Toyota use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which the Honda Emergency Response Guide for Hybrid Vehicles claims are "non-flammable" and "non-explosive." The batteries are sealed in a protective metal case and insulated from the vehicle body. Toyota and Honda locate the battery packs near the rear axle, a spot they say is well-protected in the event of a collision. Hybrid vehicles must conform to the same government crash standards as all other passenger vehicles.

Most automakers voluntarily shroud their battery cables in bright-orange cladding as a warning to emergency workers. The orange color is not a federal requirement, and there is no assurance manufacturers entering the hybrid market will use it.

"You need to know where those wires are, and the high-voltage equipment," Honda's Almeida said.

HIGH-VOLTAGE HAZARDS

Some hybrid models use as much as 650 volts of power. While the amount of voltage required to cause injury is a variable dependent on many factors, 650 volts is more than enough to cause damage. "It could kill you," said David Schimmel, lead instructor trainer for the New Jersey State First Aid Council, which provides training for about 22,000 volunteer emergency responders.

Almeida says hybrids pose no additional danger as long as the rescue procedures outlined in their manuals are followed, starting with ensuring the ignition is shut off and the key removed, which is standard procedure for responders to conventional cars. It is this safety protocol, and the built-in electronic fail-safe measures, that counter the potential threat from a high-voltage system. "As long as the key is out of the ignition, the car is dead," Almeida said. The Toyota system disables the high-voltage system if an air bag is deployed. Ford uses inertia switches to disconnect the high-voltage system in a crash; the HV system is also shut down whenever the ignition is shut off.

Rescuers are routinely advised to disable the 12-volt system, in both hybrid and conventional cars, that provides power to the high-voltage system. Cutting the battery cables located under the hood can do this. While hybrids do introduce a risk to rescuers, the solution to reducing the chance of injury falls in line with established procedures used to prevent air-bag and other electric-related injuries from conventional automobiles. Shutting down power became especially important following the advent of air bags, which can deploy during a rescue if the electrical system is still live and if the collision did not deploy them.

ROADSIDE RECORD

Toyota has sold more than 240,000 hybrid vehicles, and none have caused injury to rescuers, according to spokesman Wade Hoyt. "No reports of injuries related to the hybrid battery or electrical systems from any of our hybrid vehicles," he said, adding, "The last thing we want is for emergency responders to hesitate."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spokesman Eric Bolton said he knew of no deaths, adding, "Clearly, NHTSA is concerned for the safety of EMT personnel." Bolton said the agency would not necessarily hear of an EMT fatality.

Miami Beach Fire Department spokesman Javier Otero says the city's 200 full-time firefighters respond to many vehicle incidents. "Everything we do has a hazard," he said. "This is just a new hazard that we need to get trained and educated on."

As hybrid vehicles become more defined by powertrains rather than an exclusive body style (i.e. Insight, Prius), rescue workers should be mindful of badging to indicate whether a Civic, Escape, Highlander, or other model features a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain. But, according to experts, as long as proper rescue procedures are followed, this growing vehicle segment should not pose a greater roadside threat than traditional, combustion-engined cars.

Click here to order a New Car Price Report, or call 1-800-888-8275.

The full Ratings and recommendations for more than 200 vehicles, along with the latest information on thousands of other products and services, are available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Find out how to subscribe today.