Cars are Safer Today, But Bigger Isn't Always Better

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 02, 2015

A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) survey shows that cars are safer than ever—the chances of dying in a crash has fallen by a third over three years—and nine recent models have a death rate of zero, nada, zip.

Sitting up high is not much help when you're upside down. (Flickr/Richard Roberson)
Sitting up high is not much help when you're upside down. (Flickr/Richard Roberson)

But the stats (taken of 2011 model cars) also tend to show that bigger is better, since there’s a lot of SUVs on the “Lowest Rates of Driver Deaths,” and a bunch of small ones at the top of the “Highest” list. Big SUVs, though gas-guzzling, do tend to have mass going for them, though the most popular crossovers are built on car chassis and probably aren’t safer than regular cars.

And the stats actually tell a more complicated story, since some of the zero fatality cars—like the Audi A4 4WD—are fairly small, and owe their stellar record at least in part to advanced safety systems. That’s definitely true of the Volvo XC90 4WD, which is state of the art in passenger safety.

Other zero death scorers: The Honda Odyssey minivan, the Kia Sorento 2WD, the Lexus 350 4WD, the Mercedes-Benz GL 4WD, the Subaru Legacy 4WD, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD and the Sequoia 4WD.

Right-side up again. (Flickr/Richard Roberson)
Right-side up again. (Flickr/Richard Roberson)

The cars with the highest rates of overall driver deaths (per million registered vehicle years) are, in descending order, the Kia Rio (149 deaths), the Nissan Versa sedan (130), the Hyundai Accent (four-door, 120), Chevrolet Aveo (99), Hyundai Accent (two-door, 86), Chevrolet Camaro (80), and the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew 4WD (79).

See what I mean? The Silverado is humungous, and its fatality rate is only marginally better than the two-door Accent. So I would guess that how people drive their cars is an important factor, as is how many of them are on the road—and where. My Car Talk colleague Jamie Kitman comments, “It’s a snapshot, I suspect. One University of Michigan study about 10 years ago found that the safest car statistically was a Honda Civic.”  

Little guys can crash too. (Flickr/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier)
Little guys can crash too. (Flickr/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier)

The Jetta, Accord and Camry were also judged among the safest vehicles in that 2002 study, conducted with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. But other small cars fared less well back then, including the Chevy Cavalier, Ford Escort and Dodge Neon.

This defense of small cars isn’t just conjecture on our part. A federal Lawrence Berkeley Labs study of highway deaths by vehicle type (2002) concluded:

It is extremely difficult to determine the inherent safety of a vehicle type or model because of the difficulty in separating the contribution of driver characteristics and behavior from the contribution of vehicle design….For example, some car models may attract relatively aggressive drivers, who increase the fatalities in the model, independent of its design.

Not casting any aspersions here, but might the inclusion of the beefy Camaro here have something to do with the latter point?

Further, a University of Michigan professor and a Lawrence Berkeley professor teamed up on a paper entitled, “Are SUVs Really Safer than Cars?” and they found, as I’ve always maintained, that rollover risk levels the playing field:

The risk to drivers of average midsize and large cars is about the same as for the average SUV. The risks differ in their makeup, with a higher fraction of fatalities in SUVs from rollovers. Similarly, the risk to drivers of the safest midsize and large car models (Avalon, Camry, and Accord) is about the same as for the safest SUVs (Suburban, Cherokee, and Tahoe). However, the average SUV poses nearly twice the risk to drivers of other vehicles as do the average midsize and large cars. The net result is that the combined risk of the average SUV (129) is about 25 to 30 percent higher than that of the average midsize (105) or large car (100).

For its part, IIHS notes that all vehicles are getting safer, and there were 7,700 fewer driver deaths in 2012 than there would have been if we were all still driving 1985 cars (the Chrysler LeBaron, anyone?). The reason? Better structural designs, and the routine inclusion of such safety systems as ABS brakes, stability control, lane keeping, blind spot detection, and adaptive cruise control.

Come to think of it, since these systems are expensive and tend to come standard on luxury models, that may be why we see those Lexus and Audi models at the head of the class. A key point, then, is that safety equipment should be a given on all cars. Here is IIHS' top safety picks among 2014 model cars, with Honda and Volvo doing well:


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