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The effects of vehicle redesign on the risk of driver death

Farmer, Charles M.; Lund, Adrian K.
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
October 2015

Objectives: This study updates a 2006 report that estimated the historical effects of vehicle design changes on driver fatality rates in the United States, separate from the effects of environmental and driver behavior changes during the same period. In addition to extending the period covered by 8 years, this study estimated the effect of design changes by model year and vehicle type.
Methods: Driver death rates for consecutive model years of vehicle models without design changes were used to estimate the vehicle aging effect and the death rates that would have been expected if the entire fleet had remained unchanged from the 1985 calendar year. These calendar year estimates are taken to be the combined effect of road environment and motorist behavioral changes, with the difference between them and the actual calendar year driver fatality rates reflecting the effect of changes in vehicle design and distribution of vehicle types. The effects of vehicle design changes by model year were estimated for cars, SUVs, and pickups by computing driver death rates for model years 1984–2009 during each of their first 3 full calendar years of exposure and comparing with the expected rates if there had been no design changes.
Results: As reported in the 2006 study, had there been no changes in the vehicle fleet, driver death risk would have declined during calendar years 1985–1993 and then slowly increased from 1993 to 2004. The updated results indicate that the gradual increase would have continued through 2006, after which driver fatality rates again would have declined through 2012. Overall, it is estimated that there were 7,700 fewer driver deaths in 2012 than there would have been had vehicle designs not changed. Cars were the first vehicle type whose design safety generally exceeded that of the 1984 model year (starting in model year 1996), followed by SUVs (1998 models) and pickups (2002 models). By the 2009 model year, car driver fatality risk had declined 51% from its high in 1994, pickup driver fatality risk had declined 61% from its high in 1988, and SUV risk had declined 79% from its high in 1988. The risk of driver death in 2009 model passenger vehicles was 8% lower than that in 2008 models and about half that in 1984 models.
Conclusions: Changes in vehicles, whether from government regulations and consumer testing that led to advanced safety designs or from other factors such as consumer demand for different sizes and types of vehicles, have been key contributors to the decline in U.S. motor vehicle occupant crash death rates since the mid-1990s. Since the early 1990s, environmental and behavioral risk factors have not shown similar improvement, until the recession of 2007, even though there are many empirically proven countermeasures that have been inadequately applied.