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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 7 | SPECIAL ISSUE: DRIVER DEATH RATES | August 19, 2000 Subscribe

Driver death rates for 1994-97 models encompass a huge range

Driver death rates in 1994-97 model cars, passenger vans, pickup trucks, and utility vehicles during a four-year period show a huge range in the likelihood of dying in some models compared with others. The average death rate in all passenger vehicles during 1995-98 is 89 per million registered vehicle years, but the rate for some models is 2 or 3 times as high.

Driver death rates in all crashes plus death rates in multiple-vehicle, single-vehicle, and single-vehicle rollover crashes are computed for 156 passenger vehicle models with at least 120,000 registered vehicle years or 20 driver deaths during calendar years 1995-98. The death rates for each model represent the reported number of driver deaths divided by the model's number of registered vehicle years. Death rates also are computed by weight class within body style groups. Data are from the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and registration counts from The Polk Company.

Among the vehicles, exposure varies considerably. For example, the exposure for passenger vans weighing 3,500-3,999 pounds is more than 5 million registered years, while for the lightest station wagons exposure is fewer than 200,000 years. Because of this variability, 95 percent confidence intervals were computed with upper and lower bounds indicating the precision of the computed death rates for all crash types.

The computed rates reflect the influence of vehicle designs plus their patterns of use and the demographics of their drivers. Comparisons among vehicles should be interpreted with these factors in mind.

Bigger and heavier vehicles are better

Two important characteristics influencing crash outcome are vehicle size and weight, which are strongly related. The smaller, lighter vehicles in each class generally have higher death rates.

Driver deaths per million registered vehicle years
by vehicle body style/weight and crash type,
1994-97 models during 1995-98

  Four-door passenger cars Two-door passenger cars Passenger vans & station wagons
Vehicle weight OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
< 2,500 lbs 101 (95-108) 64 37 19 136 (121-152) 83 52 31 63 (32-113) 46 17 6
2,500-2,999 lbs. 85 (80-90) 44 41 21 122 (113-133) 52 71 42 85 (61-115) 59 26 20
3,000-3,499 lbs. 73 (68-79) 43 30 14 101 (83-123) 31 70 42 64 (49-83) 43 21 15
3,500-3,999 lbs. 75 (63-88) 53 22 9 76 (63-90) 46 30 15 38 (33-44) 23 15 11
4,000-4,499 lbs. 38 (17-76) 14 24 10
4,500-4,999 lbs.
≥ 5,000 lbs.
  Four-wheel-drive utility vehicles Two-wheel drive pickup trucks Four-wheel drive pickup trucks
Vehicle weight OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
<  2,500 lbs
2,500-2,999 lbs. 98 (59-153) 51 46 26 173 (155-192) 69 103 67
3,000-3,499 lbs. 53 (37-72) 27 26 19 114 (96-134) 58 56 39 160 (129-196) 41 119 93
3,500-3,999 lbs. 64 (55-75) 20 44 35 102 (91-115) 43 59 35 117 (71-181) 35 82 58
4,000-4,499 lbs. 68 (59-79) 23 46 36 72 (56-90) 28 44 26 88 (76-102) 23 65 41
4,500-4,999 lbs. 98 (62-147) 17 81 64 68 (49-91) 42 26 16 97 (80-117) 30 67 56
≥ 5,000 lbs. 46 (34-62) 17 29 20 62 (37-97) 42 20 3 109 (88-133) 38 71 54

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and The Polk Company's National Vehicle Population Profile

Results for two- and four-door cars don't include luxury or sports models; results aren't shown for these car groups or for two-wheel-drive utility vehicles. Numbers in parentheses are 95 percent confidence limits.

— no exposure or insufficient exposure

Although heavier vehicles generally have lower death rates, the effects of additional weight tend to diminish as vehicles get heavier and heavier — for example, among utility vehicles and pickups weighing more than 4,000 pounds. This makes sense because an increase of 500 pounds is much less significant among vehicles that already weigh 4,000 pounds than it is among cars weighing only 2,500 pounds.

The vehicles with the lowest death rates are larger, heavier passenger vans. Rates for these vehicles likely reflect their use patterns as well as their larger, more protective designs.

Two-door cars generally have higher death rates than four-door models weighing about the same. This is true except for cars that weigh 3,500 pounds or more, among which death rates in two- and four-door models are about the same.

Within any given weight class, pickup trucks have the highest driver death rates, and four-wheel-drive pickups are the worst. High single-vehicle rollover death rates are major contributors to the poor overall rates in these vehicles. The heaviest four-wheel-drive pickups (5,000+ pounds) have a death rate of 109 per million registered vehicle years, and the single-vehicle rollover death rate is 54 per million. In contrast, the corresponding rates for four-door cars weighing about half as much as the heavy pickups are 85 and 21.

In large part because of their high centers of gravity, both utility vehicles and pickup trucks in most weight classes have relatively high driver death rates in single-vehicle rollover crashes. A somewhat surprising — and as yet unexplained—finding is that utility vehicles weighing less than 3,500 pounds have lower rollover death rates than two-door cars of comparable weight.

Comparisons among similar vehicles

The nonvehicle factors that can influence death rates (use patterns and driver demographics) are less likely to vary within vehicle body style/size groups than across groups. Yet even within groups, big differences often exist. Consider the Honda Civic's rate of 47 deaths per million registered vehicle years, which is much lower than rates for many other small four-door cars. The Nissan Sentra's rate of 100 per million, for example, is much higher, as are rates for the Geo Prizm (125 per million), Dodge/Plymouth Neon (129), and Kia Sephia (148).

The upper confidence bound for the Civic's death rate is below the lower confidence bounds for the other four cars. This means the lower rate for the Civic isn't due to chance, and it seems likely that differences in the designs of the vehicles play a significant role in the differences between the Honda Civic and the other small cars.

Highest death rates in midsize sports cars

The vehicles with the highest death rates are all sports cars — the Chevrolet Camaro, Camaro convertible, and Pontiac Firebird. These three models have very high death rates in single-vehicle crashes, and this has been true model year after model year (see "Camaro has highest on-road death rate," Nov. 9, 1996). The single-vehicle death rates, including high rollover rates despite low centers of gravity, reflect both the performance capabilities of the sports cars and the risk-taking characteristics of many of their drivers.

More results for specific vehicle models

For a very large luxury car, the Lincoln Town Car's death rate is surprisingly high. In part, this reflects the concentration of elderly people among Town Car drivers. Fifty-six percent of the people killed in crashes of this car during 1995-98 were 65 years or older, compared with 15 percent of all fatally injured drivers.

The Lincoln Mark VIII, a large luxury coupe, also has a high death rate, but only 15 percent of its fatally injured drivers were 65 or older. The Mark VIII's high rate is mostly because of single-vehicle crash deaths, which are more frequent in two-door cars and coupes.

The death rate in single-vehicle rollover crashes for the four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee is 15 per million registered vehicle years — about the same as in many small and midsize cars. This is a somewhat surprising result for a small utility vehicle, especially because many larger utility vehicles have much higher rates of driver death in single-vehicle rollover crashes. Reasons for the Cherokee's low rate aren't known.

Among larger utility vehicles, the Ford Explorer's driver death rate of 56 per million registered vehicle years is lower than the Isuzu Rodeo's 99 deaths per million. Death rates in multiple-vehicle crashes differ from 19 per million for the Explorer to 29 per million for the Rodeo, but the single-vehicle crash death rates for these two vehicles diverge far more widely — 37 per million compared with 70. Much of this divergence is because of the Rodeo's higher rollover death rate of 46 per million compared with 26 for the Explorer.

Driver death rates and insurance losses

Fatal crash injuries are relatively rare, so they have little influence on insurance losses for injuries. Such losses are dominated by the far more frequent low- to moderate-severity collisions and their associated injuries.

Still there are correlations. Small two- and four-door cars typically have both high rates of driver death and poor insurance injury claims experience. An exception is sports cars. These tend to have high driver death rates because they're more likely to be in high-speed single-vehicle crashes in which the risk of dying is very high. However, insurance injury results for sports cars tend to be about average.

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