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IIHS:Small Vehicles Incur Largest Number of Driver Deaths

Beverly Braga | Jun 01, 2020

Affordable, dependable, and deadly? At face value, that’s what statistics from a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) report seems to suggest regarding small passenger cars. However, the same article mentions that several factors (e.g., miles driven, location, safety technology) can influence the figures. So, let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Insurance Institute of Highway Safety report

The IIHS report is specific to 2017 model-year vehicles and their equivalent, which is to say other models (2015-2018) were included if they were not redesigned. In the study, “mini” (subcompact) and “small” compact cars accounted for 15 of the 20 models with the highest driver death rates. Of the vehicles with the lowest number of driver fatalities, nearly half of the 20 models listed were luxury SUVs. 

The average driver death rate for all vehicles was 36 per million registered vehicle years. When looking at specific segments, subcompacts saw 82 deaths per million registered vehicle years versus 15 for very large SUVs.

This is not to say that larger or luxury vehicles are safer than smaller and value-oriented ones. For example, when taking into account miles driven, sports cars fared worse with an average of 50 deaths per million registered miles compared to 49 for all 2-door cars combined. And don’t forget that the data says the flashier, faster vehicles are driven an average 21% less. One can speculate that how a vehicle is driven can be just as can be as significant a factor as how often the car is on the road.

Sticking with mileage, minivans and pickups logged more annual miles at 14,939 and 16,155, respectively. They also registered a below-average number of deaths. Minivans recorded 22 fatalities per million registered vehicle years; pickups listed a category average of 29. But, again, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Because while the GMC Yukon XL 1500 4WD—a behemoth of a family hauler—recorded zero fatalities, so did the Volkswagen Golf, a compact commuter car.

To conclude that the latest IIHS report recommends consumers purchase larger vehicles is misguided. In a front-end collision, Newton’s law of motion tells us that, yes, a three-row SUV and its occupants will fare better than a subcompact 2-door. But two large SUVs head-to-head? Safety equipment will play a more important role than vehicle size. Additionally, vehicle sales matter, too. 

Not all available vehicles were included in the study. Per IIHS, a vehicle must have at least 100,000 registered vehicle years of exposure from 2015 to 2018, or at least 20 deaths. Exotics and low-selling EVs probably didn’t make the cut this time around. Another thing to consider is that high-selling vehicles will have a higher probability of accidents simply because there are more of them on the road. 

The Ford Mustang GT coupe, for example, registered one of the highest rates of driver deaths at 81 per million registered vehicle years. But the Mustang—last redesigned for 2015—has sold about 386,000 units between 2015-18. The Porsche Cayenne, which recorded zero deaths per the IIHS study, sold at a rate of 56,000 total vehicles during the same time frame.

IIHS has conducted this study every three years since 1989. Only driver deaths are included because drivers are a constant variable whereas the number of passengers can vary from zero to several. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System is a federal database from which the deaths are reported; vehicle registration data is derived from IHS Markit.

In the end, safe driving and safety technology may be more indicative of driver fatalities. Cars of all shapes and sizes are increasingly become safer as equipment like blind-spot warning, automatic front and rear braking, and Bluetooth hands-free calling are now either standard or affordable options. And as driver-assistance technology like adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance continue to trickle down from luxury vehicles to entry-level models, collision avoidance should be the focus whenever drivers get behind the wheel rather than what they are getting behind the wheel of.

This information in this article is based on a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and analysis by our expert author. It was accurate on June 1, 2020 but may have changed since that date.

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