ARLINGTON, Va. — Today's SUVs and pickups pose far less risk to people in cars and minivans than previous generations, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.
Until recently, SUVs and pickups were more likely than cars or minivans of the same weight to be involved in crashes that killed occupants of other cars or minivans. That's no longer the case for SUVs, and for pickups the higher risk is much less pronounced than it had been.
For example, among 1-4-year-old vehicles weighing 3,000-3,499 pounds, SUVs were involved in crashes that killed car/minivan occupants at a rate of 44 deaths per million registered vehicle years in 2000-01. That rate dropped by nearly two-thirds to 16 in 2008-09. In comparison, cars and minivans in the same weight category were involved in the deaths of other car/minivan occupants at a slightly higher rate of 17 per million in 2008-09.
Crash partner deaths for 1-4-year-old vehicles per million registered vehicle years
The researchers attribute much of the change to two things: improved crash protection in the cars and minivans, thanks to side airbags and stronger structures, and newer designs of SUVs and pickups that align their front-end energy-absorbing structures with those of cars.
The more compatible designs are the result of efforts by automakers, the government, and the Institute to address the problem of mismatched vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked automakers to address the compatibility issue amid concern about the changing vehicle mix on U.S. roads. In response, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, and the Institute led a series of meetings in 2003 to come up with solutions. Participating automakers included BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
The companies agreed to build the front ends of SUVs and pickups so that their energy-absorbing structures would line up better with those of cars, reducing the likelihood that an SUV or pickup would override a car in a collision. Better alignment allows both vehicles' front ends to manage the crash energy, helping to keep it away from the occupant compartments.
The automakers also pledged to strengthen head protection in all vehicles in order to improve outcomes when an SUV or pickup strikes another vehicle in the side. They accomplished this by installing more head-protecting side airbags.
"By working together, the automakers got life-saving changes done quickly," says Joe Nolan, the Institute's chief administrative officer and a co-author of the new study. "The new designs have made a big difference on the road."
The deadline for implementing the compatibility changes was September 2009, but many of the 2004-08 models in the study already complied. Among 2004 models, 54 percent of SUVs and pickups met the front-end requirements, and among 2007 models, 81 percent did.
How the study was done
Institute researchers looked at 1-4-year-old SUVs, pickups, and cars/minivans in 2000-01 and 2008-09 and compared the number of car and minivan occupants killed in 2-vehicle crashes with those models per million registered vehicle years. (A registered vehicle year is 1 vehicle registered for 1 year, 2 for 6 months, etc.) The cars or minivans in which people were killed, known as crash partner vehicles, could be of any age, size, and weight. Data on crash deaths came from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and registration information came from R.L. Polk & Co.
In both 2000-01 and 2008-09, the number of crash partner deaths generally went up as vehicle weight increased. This isn't surprising since vehicle weight is a key factor in the outcome of crashes. However, in the first period, SUVs were more deadly to people in other vehicles than cars of the same weight, and pickups were more deadly than SUVs.
Between 2000-01 and 2008-09, the rate of crash partner deaths declined for all weight categories of all 3 types of vehicles, except the relatively small group of cars and minivans weighing 4,500-4,999 pounds. Improvements in occupant protection in the crash partner cars and minivans helped lower the number of deaths. The spread of ESC, as well as changes in travel patterns due to the sluggish economy and high gas prices, likely also contributed to this decline.
Crash partner death rates for pickups, SUVs, and cars/minivans in 2008-09 weren't as far apart as they were in 2000-01. Among 1-4-year-old vehicles in a given weight category, an SUV usually posed no more risk to people in a car or minivan than another car or minivan. Pickups still fatally injured people in cars and minivans at a higher rate, particularly in frontal crashes.
"Pickups lagged behind other vehicles in getting ESC, and designs of some top-selling models were slow to change. Those facts help explain why the numbers didn't improve as much for pickups as for SUVs," Nolan says. "Also, pickups often carry loads, so the trucks in these crashes could be a good deal heavier than their curb weights."
The results don't contradict the basic physics of crashes. Size and weight are still key, and a small, lightweight vehicle is going to fare worse than a big, heavy vehicle in a crash. In general, SUVs and pickups are heavier than cars, so in that sense different types of vehicles always will be mismatched. But the study shows that, beyond weight, differences in vehicle styles don't have to be a safety problem.
The study of car/minivan crash partner deaths is the latest piece of Institute research showing that SUVs aren't the safety concern they once were. Recently calculated driver death rates for 2005-08 models show that drivers of SUVs are among the least likely to die in a crash. That change is due largely to ESC.
"Whether you're in an SUV or just sharing the road with one," Nolan says, "recent improvements to these vehicles are making you safer."