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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 3 | SPECIAL ISSUE: DRIVER DEATH RATES | March 19, 2005 Subscribe

Fatality risk isn't the same in all vehicles, driver death rates show

Car, minivan, SUV, and pickup truck models vary widely in the likelihood of dying in a crash. The average driver death rate in 1999-2002 passenger vehicle models during 2000-03 was 87 per million registered vehicle years. But the death rates in some models were two or even three times as high, while the rates in other vehicles were much lower.

Large cars and minivans dominate among vehicle models with very low death rates. The models with the highest rates are mostly small cars and small and midsize SUVs, many of which also have high rates of death in single-vehicle rollover crashes. The model with the highest death rate of all — the two-door, two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer with 308 driver deaths per million registered years — also had the highest rollover death rate (251 per million).

"Many of these general patterns of death rates have been consistent since the Institute began computing the rates by vehicle make and model in the late 1980s," says Institute chief operating officer Adrian Lund (see Status Report special issue: occupant death rates, Nov. 25, 1989). "Since then there also has been a pattern of improvement. In the late 1980s the overall driver death rate was higher than 100. The latest overall rate was 87."

Vehicle body style, size, and fatality risk

Important characteristics of vehicles that influence their driver death rates are type, body style, size, and weight. Within virtually every group of vehicles, the smaller and lighter models have the higher rates.

Among cars, for example, the smallest two-door models had the highest death rate at 190 per million vehicle years. This rate is more than twice as high as the average for all vehicles included in the study.

Midsize sports cars also had a high rate at 133 driver deaths per million vehicle years. This was higher than for either small or mini sports cars, so this type of vehicle was an exception to the general rule that bigger means lower death rates.

The vehicle group with the lowest driver death rate was large luxury cars with 37 deaths per million vehicle years. The next lowest rate was in large minivans and station wagons with 42 deaths per million.

Body style and size

Driver death rates by size and body style group, 
per million registered vehicle years
very large71433012
very large4726207
very large103199275
very large95276851
very large69313822

Vehicle weight and the risk of death

Because vehicle size and weight are so closely related, it shouldn't be surprising that their effects on driver death rates are similar. In each group (cars, SUVs, pickups) the heavier vehicles, like bigger ones, generally had lower death rates. The rate in the lightest SUVs, for example, was more than twice as high as in the heaviest SUVs.

"Pound for pound across the vehicle types, cars almost always have lower death rates than either pickups or SUVs. This generally is because the SUVs and pickups have much higher rates of death in single-vehicle rollover crashes," Lund explains.

In some weight groups, the death rates in cars were dramatically lower. For example, the rate in cars weighing 3,501 to 4,000 pounds was about half of the rates in pickups or SUVs of similar weight. The exception was light pickups, which had relatively low rates compared with cars or SUVs weighing about the same.

"There's no ready explanation for this exception," Lund says. "It probably has something to do with how light pickups are driven and their use patterns compared with larger and heavier pickups."

Influence of vehicle weight

Driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 1999-2002 models during 2000-03
Vehicle weightOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
≤ 2,500 lbs115714220
2,501-3,000 lbs.10254462512863664790424928
3,001-3,500 lbs.8444391998386147131577445
3,501-4,000 lbs.5633231098326953115338256
4,001-4,500 lbs.472720773235339107387044
4,501-5,000 lbs.6627402893306441
> 5,000 lbs.5515423387286044

— no exposure or insufficient exposure

Rates differ among similar vehicles

Besides these broad death rate differences across vehicle groups, the rates varied within body style and size groups. In almost every size group of two-door and four-door cars, for example, the death rate for the worst vehicle was at least twice as high as the rate for the best vehicle.

Consider the Infiniti G20's rate of 46 deaths per million registered years, which was much lower than rates for other small four-door cars. The Chevrolet Cavalier's rate was 162 per million, and the Pontiac Sunfire's was 160. The upper confidence bound for the G20's death rate is well below the lower confidence bounds for the other two cars.

"This means that the lower death rate for the G20 wasn't due to chance," Lund says. A more extreme example involves midsize four-wheel-drive SUVs. The Toyota 4Runner had only 12 driver deaths per million registered years during 2000-03. This compares with 134 deaths per million for the two-door Ford Explorer and 119 per million for the Land Rover Discovery Series II.

Single-vehicle versus multiple-vehicle crashes

In many vehicle groups, driver death rates are split fairly evenly between single- and multiple-vehicle crashes. But there are exceptions. Most driver deaths in large four-door cars and minivans occurred in crashes involving other vehicles. In contrast, in pickup trucks and SUVs of almost every size more deaths occurred in single-vehicle crashes. In large four-wheel-drive SUVs, for example, the death rate was almost three times as high in single-vehicle crashes as it was in collisions involving two or more vehicles (14 deaths per million compared with 40).

Rollover crashes

Eleven vehicles, all pickups or SUVs, had more than 75 driver deaths per million in single-vehicle rollover crashes. This is in large part because pickup trucks and SUVs have relatively high centers of gravity compared with cars. The Ford Excursion is a very large SUV with a high rollover death rate. This is at least in part because its occupancy rate tends to be high, which raises its center of gravity even higher.

The vehicle with the very highest driver death rate in single-vehicle rollover crashes was the two-door, two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer. The 251 deaths per million for this SUV compare with an average of 63 for all midsize two-wheel-drive SUVs, 34 for four-wheel-drive versions, and 28 for all vehicles in the study.

Not all midsize SUVs had high death rates in single-vehicle rollovers. The Lexus RX 300, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, and Acura MDX had 6 or fewer rollover deaths per million vehicle years. Both the RX 300 and the 4Runner are equipped with electronic stability control, which has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes, including rollovers (see "Electronic stability control reduces deaths, especially in single-vehicle crashes," Jan. 3, 2005).

Not one driver death occurred in a rollover of the RX 300 or four-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4, a small SUV. This experience doesn't mean the rates for these vehicles will be zero every year, but it does mean very low rates can be expected.

"Small SUVs have had high rollover death rates in previous years, but as the RAV4 indicates this may be changing. One reason may be that the drivers are changing," Lund points out. "It used to be that younger people, especially young men, drove small SUVs, but now many women drive them, including older women. In addition, as vehicle manufacturers redesign their small SUVs they're addressing the rollover problem in the designs, making these vehicles more stable and less likely to roll over."

How the death rates were computed

Rates of driver death in all crashes plus rates in multiple-vehicle, single-vehicle, and single-vehicle rollover crashes were computed for 199 passenger vehicle models (1999-2002) with at least 120,000 registered vehicle years or 20 driver deaths during the study years.

Each model's rate represents the reported number of driver deaths divided by the model's number of registered years. 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 number of registered vehicle years for midsize two-door cars is nearly 3 million. This compares with fewer than 300,000 registered years for large two-door cars. Because of this variability, 95 percent confidence intervals were computed with upper and lower bounds indicating the precision of the computed rates for all crash types.

The rates reflect primarily the influence of a vehicle's design and patterns of use. Because driver demographics can be a major influence, the death rate for each vehicle was adjusted according to the proportion of deaths of women 25-64 years old. These drivers are involved in fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver. For most vehicles the rates were adjusted by less than 20 percent.

"This is the first year we've adjusted the rates to account for some driver characteristics," Lund says. "The adjustment takes away some of the differences among vehicles caused by differences in driver gender. Other demographic factors still influence the death rates, but more of the differences in the rates reflect the vehicles."

Lowest rates of driver deaths

Fewer than 30 driver deaths per million registered years,
1999-2002 models during calendar years 2000-03
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Mercedes E-Classluxury carlarge10730
Toyota 4Runner4WD SUVmidsize12666
Volkswagen Passat4-door carmidsize1601813
Lexus RX 3004WD SUVmidsize171150
Toyota RAV44WD SUVsmall181260
Honda Odysseyminivanlarge191621
Mercury Villagerminivanlarge217157
Mercedes S-Classluxury carvery large2515100
Nissan Pathfinder4WD SUVmidsize258174
Cadillac DeVilleluxury carlarge2612144
Nissan Questminivanlarge262300
Toyota Camry Solara2-door carmidsize27101611
Cadillac Eldoradoluxury carlarge2912176
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

Highest rates of driver deaths

More than 160 driver deaths per million registered years,
1999-2002 models during calendar years 2000-03
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Chevrolet Blazer 2dr2WD SUVmidsize30854274251
Mitsubishi Mirage2-door carsmall2091426937
Pontiac Firebirdsports carmidsize2054216771
Kia Rio4-door carmini2009510964
Kia Sportage 4dr2WD SUVsmall1976513888
Chevrolet Blazer 4dr2WD SUVmidsize1907811379
Ford Explorer 2dr2WD SUVmidsize18752145122
Chevrolet Camarosports carmidsize1866212363
Mazda B series2WD pickupsmall1856712488
Chevrolet Tracker4WD SUVsmall183869880
Chevrolet S102WD pickupsmall1828110161
Chevrolet Cavalier2-door carsmall168907649
Chevrolet Cavalier4-door carsmall162838144
Kia Sportage 4dr4WD SUVsmall16251119100
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

Sources of data are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and The Polk Company's National Vehicle Population Profile.

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