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Driver death rates remain higher among small cars

To no one’s surprise, despite manufacturers’ efforts to make them safer, the smallest late-model cars remain the most dangerous, according to the most recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study of driver death rates. The IIHS is the agency that crash-tests new cars and issues information on their safety.

“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,” says Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president of vehicle research. Very large SUVs have the lowest overall death rate of any vehicle category with 15 fatalities per million registered vehicle years. Minicars have the highest at 82.

The average driver death rate for all 2017 models increased to 36 deaths, compared with 30 for 2014 models. That’s a further increase from a low of 28 for 2011 models following a steady decline since the 1970s. The rise is consistent with a larger number of U.S. traffic fatalities over the four-year period covered by this study, compared with the previous one. From 2015 to 2018 there were 147,324 fatalities in the U.S., compared with 134,905 from 2012 to 2015.

The death rates for 2017 models vary widely from 0 for seven models to 141 for the worst performer, the 2017 Ford Fiesta, a 4-door minicar that earned a rating of “marginal” in the IIHS driver-side small overlap crash test. Including the Fiesta, half the 2017 models with the highest death rates were also among the worst for model year 2014, the last time IIHS looked at the data. The rates include only driver deaths because all vehicles on the road have drivers, but not all of them have passengers or the same number of passengers.

Alongside vehicle safety ratings, driver death rates are another source of information consumers can use to inform their purchasing decisions. The two types of information complement each other. IIHS ratings are designed to compare vehicles in the same size category. Frontal crash test results can’t be compared across sizes because the kinetic energy involved in the test increases with vehicle weight. In contrast, the driver death rates can be compared across vehicle classes. However, as a comparative tool, they have their own limitations.

No matter how you study driver death rates, the one thing to take away from the IIHS studies is that size matters — with a few exceptions, the bigger the vehicle the safer it is. Another interesting finding is that the overall death rates for luxury vehicles are also substantially lower than the averages for nonluxury vehicles of the same sizes. Luxury vehicles often come equipped with advanced safety features that aren’t widely installed on less expensive ones, such as blind spot warning and lane departure prevention.

With an average of 35,000 deaths annually on our roads and highways, safety should be first and foremost when looking for a new vehicle. Think safety first.

To see the results of the IIHS tests, go to the May 28, 2020 edition of Status Report at: “https://www.iihs.org/api/datastoredocument/status-report/pdf/55/2” https://www.iihs.org/api/datastoredocument/status-report/pdf/55/2

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