Home » Status Report » 2003 » Article
Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 7 | SPECIAL ISSUE: SIDE IMPACT CRASHWORTHINESS | June 28, 2003 Subscribe

Side impacts account for a growing share of deaths

NASS

Today's passenger vehicles are more crashworthy than they used to be, especially in frontal crashes. As occupant protection in frontal crashes improves, the relative importance of protecting people in side impacts increases.

From the early 1980s until 2000, car driver death rates decreased from 164 to 87 per million cars registered. This represents a 47 percent decline. Most of this improvement was in frontal crashes, in which driver death rates decreased from 86 to 41 per million (52 percent decline).

The improvement was much smaller in side impacts — the death rate decreased from 42 to 32 per million (24 percent decline). In crashes with another passenger vehicle, 51 percent of driver deaths in recent model cars during 2000-01 occurred in side impacts, up from 31 percent in 1980-81. During the same time, the proportion of deaths in frontal crashes declined from 61 percent to 43 percent.

These changes are attributable to two effects. There have been significant improvements in frontal crash protection. For example, frontal airbags are standard in new vehicles, the structural designs of vehicles are better than they used to be, and safety belt use rates are higher. At the same time, growing sales of SUVs and pickups have exacerbated height mismatches among passenger vehicles, thereby increasing the risks to occupants of many vehicles struck in the side.

Seventy-one percent of the driver deaths in cars struck on the driver side by other passenger vehicles during 1980-81 occurred when the other vehicle was a car. Twenty-nine percent occurred when the striking vehicle was a pickup or SUV. By 2000-01 these percentages had almost reversed — 57 percent of the driver deaths in cars struck on the driver side by another passenger vehicle involved striking SUVs or pickups, while 43 percent involved striking cars.

The risks to people in a side-struck vehicle greatly increase if the striking vehicle rides higher off the ground than the struck vehicle. Thus, the risks are much higher when an SUV strikes the side of a car than when the striking vehicle is another car.

Driver deaths in cars 1-3 years old, per million cars registered, and percentage of deaths in front versus side impacts

Calendar years
Crash type Impact direction 1980-81: 1990-91: 2000-01:
Rate % Rate % Rate %
Car and
another passenger
vehicle
Front 36 61 22 53 12 43
Side 18 31 18 43 15 51
All 59 100 42 100 29 100
All car crashes Front 86 52 62 53 41 46
Side 42 26 37 32 32 37
All 164 100 117 100 87 100

Source: Fatality Analysis Reporting System, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Percent of driver deaths in 1-3-year-old passenger vehicles struck on the driver side by another passenger vehicle, by type of striking vehicle

Striking vehicle Struck vehicle 1980-81 1990-91 2000-01
Car Car 71% 61% 43%
SUV or pickup Car 29% 39% 57%
Car All passenger vehicles  70% 60% 43%
SUV or pickup All passenger vehicles 30% 40% 57%

Source: Fatality Analysis Reporting System, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Distribution of serious and fatal injuries, by body region, to drivers of passenger vehicles struck on the driver side, calendar years 1997-2001

Body region Male Female Total
Head, face, or neck 29% 34% 31%
Thorax 66% 51% 61%
Abdomen 14% 13% 13%
Upper extremities 15% 18% 16%
Pelvis & lower extremities 33% 38% 35%
Spine 5% 2% 4%

Notes: Serious injuries are AIS (Abbreviated Injury Scale) 3 or greater. Drivers frequently suffer AIS 3+ injuries to multiple body regions.

Source: National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness Data System, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

©1996-2016, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute | www.iihs.org