Study: Death Rates for Drivers Vary by Car Size

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When it comes to vehicle crashes, size and weight matter a great deal. That’s the conclusion of a comprehensive, three-year study into how drivers fared in their vehicles over time by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The fatality rates were far higher in small cars and mini cars than in vehicles with higher masses, such as larger SUVs, pickups, and minivans, according to the Virginia-based IIHS, a safety research organization funded by the insurance industry.  Large luxury SUVs had the lowest death rates.

“Smaller vehicles offer less protection for the driver in crashes, and their lighter mass means that they take the brunt of collisions with larger vehicles,” Joe Nolan, senior vice president of vehicle research at the IIHS, said in a statement.

The IIHS study, which reviewed makes, models, and vehicle categories for 147,324 driver fatalities, provides an additional data point for safety-conscious consumers shopping for cars, to complement already available crash-test data and lists of available safety equipment. Crash tests are meant to compare vehicles within a specific class, the IIHS says. The death rates over time are one way to evaluate how cars and trucks in a variety of sizes compare against each other.

Seven vehicles registered statistically zero deaths for the three-year period studied by the IIHS: the Yukon XL, Infiniti QX60, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Lexus NX 200t, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Porsche Cayenne, and Volkswagen Golf.

The Golf stands out as an exception to the small-car trend, the IIHS said, noting that in a study three years ago, the VW hatchback had a death rate similar to that of other small cars. The Golf improved. Another small car that defied the trend is the electric Nissan Leaf, with five deaths per million registered vehicle years.

Driver Death Rates by Car Type

Death rates are per million registered vehicle years, as indicated.

The Ford Fiesta had the highest overall number of deaths per million registered vehicle years, with 141, according to the IIHS. The Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic followed closely behind, with 116 and 98 deaths per million registered vehicle years. Overall, the category of mini cars (which includes the Fiesta and Accent), had an average rate of 108 deaths per million vehicle years. The category of small cars (which includes the Sonic) had a rate of 62 deaths per million vehicle years.

Nine of the 20 vehicles with the lowest death rates were classified as luxury SUVs, including the QX60, Evoque, NX, and Cayenne. Two large GM SUVs made the top 20—the GMC Yukon XL 1500 and Chevrolet Suburban 1500. So did two minivans, the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. All of the 20 best-rated vehicles had nine or fewer deaths per million registered vehicle years.

The average death rate for all vehicles was 36 per million registered vehicle years. Broken down by vehicle class, cars had an average of 48 deaths, followed by pickups at 29, SUVs at 25, and minivans at 22.

And not all SUVs performed better than cars. Small, two-wheel-drive SUVs had about the same fatality rates as midsized sedans—42 for the SUVs and 43 for the sedans.

The IIHS data is from 2015 to 2018 and covers the 2014 to 2017 model years of all vehicles with at least 100,000 registered vehicle years. The research group has published a version of this study about every three years going back to 1989.

The data only look at the death rates for drivers, not for other passengers in the vehicle. And while the rates are adjusted for driver age and gender, they don’t capture other factors that could influence fatalities, such as speeding, the number of miles driven each day, and the types of roadways people use.

Lowest Rates of Driver Deaths

Rankings are based on the least number of driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, as indicated.

Highest Rates of Driver Deaths

Rankings are based on the highest number of driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, as indicated, starting with the model with the highest death rate.

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