Twelve months of struggling to maneuver our hefty baby girl into the back of our two-door car finally convinced us it was time for a more practical vehicle. Agreeing on a car with four doors was easy. After that our opinions diverged. I was intrigued by a hybrid gas electric car promising over 50 miles per gallon (mpg). My husband’s priority was safety; his top choice chugged along at 22 mpg.

Driving is the most dangerous thing we do. This handy fact is regularly overlooked as we hop in our cars to satisfy the most trivial of needs, like chocolate ice cream at midnight. However, when deciding which car to buy, it stomps righteously into the discussion and demands priority seating. Shouldn’t we do everything in our power (short of driving less, of course) to make driving as safe as possible? In fact, when it comes to the safety of our children, perhaps a Humvee would be about right? How could we possibly opt for fuel economy over safety? I wasn’t sure myself.

I decided to look more carefully at the safety data. I do not wish to minimize the very real risks of driving, but it is apparent that we would not drive as much as we do if it weren’t reasonably safe. In the U.S. there are 1.5 deaths for every 100 million miles driven. While this results in an appalling loss of life, it nevertheless indicates that the risk to each of us is relatively low.

I proceeded on to look at crash test data for our top two choices. Both cars had excellent safety ratings for most types of accidents. However, in head-on collisions with other vehicles, the hybrid came in just above average while my husband’s car still rated in the top. “Average” safety didn’t sound too good to me.

Finally, I came across insurance industry data about real-life accident outcomes in different types of vehicles. Obviously, driver demographics and habits, as well as a car’s crash-worthiness, determine who winds up dead or injured. Not surprisingly, drivers of some types of cars get into fewer accidents than drivers of other types. These real life statistics showed almost no difference in safety outcomes for the two cars we were considering. Even more interesting, 85% of rated utility vehicles and 88% of rated pick-up trucks all had higher rates of fatal injuries than either of our two choices. Although some of these heavier vehicles fare better in crash tests, more people are getting killed while driving them around. For example, a typical driver of a Honda Civic is far safer than a typical driver of a Ford Explorer, Lincoln Town Car, or Chevrolet Suburban.

While I was happy that the safety data were reassuring, in the end, I felt that I hadn’t asked the right question. Phrasing the problem as saving lives versus saving gas makes choosing the hybrid seem like a foolhardy, symbolic gesture. But buying the cleaner car represents much more than saving a few thousand gallons of gas and having imperceptibly cleaner air. For one, it is a vote, and arguably a much more important vote than the one I cast in November. To some extent, we can help buy the world we want to live in. And I would prefer to live in a world in which we’re not playing dice with the climate.

Yet, there was more, too. Before we decided which car to buy, a close family friend said to me that our choice would send a message to his teenage daughter about the way she should behave. In other words, we were among her role models (gulp!). His comment was a bit heavy-handed, but he was right. Indeed, when we called his daughter a few weeks ago to take her to a movie, she asked us to pick her up in the hybrid because it sounded “cool.” I hung up feeling optimistic. The ripple effect of small actions among friends and neighbors is part of what fuels real change.

My long-term goal is to drive less than I do now, but given that I’m still auto-dependent, I’ve been enjoying getting over 55 mpg on the way to the sledding hill. We’ve put over 2,000 miles on the car and we’re only on our fourth tank of gas. My husband has been free from speeding tickets (largely because the car’s instant fuel economy readout lets us know how our driving habits are affecting fuel economy; this alone seems to encourage mellower driving). And I’ve been dragged out of a party on a frigid night by an acquaintance who wanted to look at my car. There’s a first time for everything.

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