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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 4 | SPECIAL ISSUE: DRIVER DEATH RATES | April 19, 2007 Subscribe

Driver deaths by make and modelFatality risk in 1 vehicle versus another

More than 125,000 occupants of passenger vehicles died in crashes during 2002-05. Most were drivers. The impacts varied from single-vehicle rollovers on rural roads to multiple-vehicle pileups in urban traffic. Something else that varied was the risk of dying in one vehicle versus another. Some cars, minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks have much higher driver death rates than others. The average rate in 2001-04 models during 2002-05 was 79 per million registered vehicle years. But the rates in some models were more than twice as high, while rates in other vehicles were only a fraction of the average.

Chevrolet models take prizes for both best and worst. The lowest death rate among more than 200 vehicles is the Astro minivan's 7 per million registered vehicle years. The highest is 232 per million in the 2-door, 2-wheel-drive version of the Chevrolet Blazer, a midsize SUV.

"This range from best to worst has been the pattern since we began comparing deaths by make and model in the late 1980s," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "The rates vary not only among groups of vehicles by type, size, and weight but also among individual models within the groups of similar vehicles."

As high as death rates are in some models, the average rate for all vehicles is going down over time. The average driver death rate in 1989-93 models during 1990-94 was 110 per million registered vehicle years (see Status Report special issue: death rates by vehicle make, series, Oct. 14, 1995). When the Institute later computed the rates in 1999-2002 models, the average was 87 per million (see Status Report special issue: driver death rates, March 19, 2005), and now it's down to 79.

"This is a big improvement over time. The rates have gone down about 30 percent since the mid-1990s," McCartt points out. The Institute computes death rates for drivers only, not passengers, because varying numbers of passengers in crashes of one vehicle versus another would affect the rates.

"Though the focus is on drivers, the rates reflect the relative fatality risk for all occupants," McCartt adds.

Death rates by vehicle size and weight

Characteristics that influence vehicles' death rates include type and body style (2-door car, 4-door SUV, etc.). Another important factor is size. The smallest vehicles in any type/body style group generally have the highest rates.

None of the 15 vehicles with the lowest driver death rates is a small model. In contrast, 11 of the 16 vehicles with the highest death rates are mini or small models, and none is large or very large.

Among all types and sizes of cars, the smallest 4-door models have the highest driver death rate at 148 per million registered vehicle years. Next highest among cars is 137 in mini 2-door models. Midsize (33) and very large (34) luxury cars have the lowest rates.

There are exceptions to the general rule that bigger is safer. For example, the driver death rate is higher in midsize sports cars (115 per million) than in mini (107) or small (71) ones.

Another exception is very large 4-wheel-drive SUVs. This group is mostly Ford Excursions, which have a driver death rate of 115 per million — higher than the death rates in large 4-wheel-drive SUVs and higher than in all but 4 of the midsize and small counterparts.

Excursions so dominate the group of very large 4-wheel-drive SUVs that they push up this group's average death rate to 76 per million compared with 47 in large counterpart vehicles and 59 in midsize ones. About half of the deaths in 2001-04 model Excursions during 2002-05 occurred in rollover crashes.

Vehicle size and weight are strongly related, so it's not surprising that driver death rates generally are higher in lighter vehicles. For example, the rate in the lightest SUVs is much higher than in the heaviest ones — 131 per million versus 47.

Pound for pound across vehicle types, cars almost always have lower death rates than pickups or SUVs. An exception is that the rate in pickups weighing 2,500-3,000 pounds is lower than in cars or SUVs weighing about the same.

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

Body style and size

Driver death rates by size and body style group
 OVERALLMultiple-
vehicle
crashes
Single-
vehicle
crashes
Single-
vehicle
rollovers
CARS    
4-DOOR    
mini148925532
small103614220
midsize71413014
large81532713
very large6143193
2-DOOR    
mini137756148
small134656837
midsize103505226
SPORTS    
mini107545426
small71234815
midsize115516431
large41132816
LUXURY    
midsize3317166
large4124174
very large34151910
SPECIALTY    
small5037116
STATION WAGONS    
small87483823
midsize51242812
large9983114
MINIVANS    
large6644219
very large3925148
SUVs    
4-WHEEL DRIVE    
small77344329
midsize59204028
large47163323
very large76215747
2-WHEEL DRIVE    
small76403723
midsize81325138
large57203934
PICKUPS    
4-WHEEL DRIVE    
small97336442
large83275738
very large89197053
2-WHEEL DRIVE    
small110505937
large102386640
very large60233724

Influence of vehicle weight

Driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 2001-04 models during 2002-05
 CARSSUVsPICKUP TRUCKS
Vehicle weightOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
≤ 2,500 lbs94553817
2,501-3,000 lbs.11564502613172594196455035
3,001-3,500 lbs.7743331674344127115476944
3,501-4,000 lbs.553519767283928104376944
4,001-4,500 lbs.38221686521473593336038
4,501-5,000 lbs.34181546523443255243221
> 5,000 lbs.4715342581206145

— no exposure or insufficient exposure


Ford Taurus

Bigger usually is better, but not in station wagons
Death rates generally are lower in bigger vehicles. An exception is large station wagons with a driver death rate (99) that's higher than in small (87) or midsize (51) wagons. The Ford Taurus accounts for most vehicles in the large group, and the rest are Mercury Sables. Their high death rates drive up the group's rate. Driver age might be a factor. The woman who died in this Taurus was 77 years old, and about half of the drivers who died in Taurus station wagons during 2002-05 were older people. Institute researchers adjust the rates for driver demographics, but this adjustment doesn't eliminate all driver effects, and older people have high death rates by some measures (see "Risk posed by older drivers to themselves and others is subject of new study," March 15, 2003).

Ford F-150

Death rate in Ford pickup matches its performance in crash tests
The purpose of Institute crash tests is to pressure automakers to improve the crashworthiness of poor performers, and the Ford F-150 is a good example. The 2001 model was one of the worst performers ever in the 40 mph frontal offset test. When the Institute later tested a redesigned 2004 F-150, the performance improved dramatically (see "From worst to best," Jan. 3, 2004). The death rate also has improved. The old F-150's rate of 118 during 2002-05 was much worse than average. In contrast is the rate of 58 in the new F-150. The crash of a 2004 model demonstrates the point. This impact was serious, but the driver's injuries weren't. The outcome might not have been the same in the old model.


Similar vehicles but different rates

Besides death rate differences across vehicle groups, the rates vary within groups of vehicles similar in both body style and size. In almost every size group of 2- and 4-door cars, for example, the rate in the worst car is at least twice as high as the rate in the best one.

Among midsize 4-door cars, the spread is much wider — a rate of 14 per million in the Audi A4/S4 Quattro versus 130 in the Mitsubishi Diamante. The upper confidence bound for the Audi's death rate is well below the lower bound for the Mitsubishi, which means the lower death rate in the A4/S4 is unlikely to be due to chance.

Rollovers and importance of ESC

Nine vehicles, all SUVs and pickups, have more than 75 driver deaths per million vehicles in single-vehicle rollover crashes, compared with an average of 24 in all 2001-04 vehicles during 2002-05. This higher rate is largely because of their relatively high centers of gravity.

The vehicle with the very highest death rate in rollovers is the 2-door, 2-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer (this SUV also has the worst overall driver death rate). Its 134 deaths per million registered years in rollovers compare with an average of 38 in all midsize 2-wheel-drive SUVs and 28 in 4-wheel-drive versions.

Not all midsize SUVs have high death rates in single-vehicle rollovers. No driver deaths were recorded in the 2-wheel-drive Lexus RX 330, for example, nor were any recorded in this vehicle the last time the Institute computed model-by-model death rates. This doesn't mean its rate will be zero every year, but it does mean very low rates can be expected.

The RX 330 and increasing numbers of other passenger vehicles, especially SUVs, are being equipped with standard or optional electronic stability control (ESC). This feature has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes including rollovers (see "ESC reduces multiple-vehicle crashes as well as single-vehicle ones," June 13, 2006).

More evidence of ESC effectiveness is that all but 3 of the 15 vehicles with the lowest overall death rates have this feature, usually standard (the Chevrolet Astro, Honda Odyssey, and Honda Pilot don't). In contrast ESC isn't standard on any of the 16 vehicles with the highest death rates, and it's optional on only 1 (the Nissan 350Z).

How the rates are computed: Institute researchers computed driver death rates in all crashes and in multiple-vehicle, single-vehicle, and single-vehicle rollover crashes for 202 passenger vehicle models (2001-04) with at least 120,000 registered years or 20 driver deaths during the study years (2002-05).

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.

Exposure varies considerably among the vehicles. For example, the number of registered years for midsize 4-door cars exceeds 11 million. This compares with about 550,000 for very large 4-door cars. Because of this variability, researchers computed 95 percent confidence intervals with upper and lower bounds indicating the precision of the computed rates.

The rates reflect the influences of both vehicle design and patterns of use. Rates are displayed by market group because of the influence of driver demographics and the increased likelihood of similarity among drivers of similar vehicles.

Researchers adjusted each of the 202 vehicles' rates according to the proportion of deaths of women 25-64 years old (drivers in this group are in fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver). For most vehicles the rates changed by less than 20 percent. These adjustments take away most of the differences among vehicles caused by driver gender, though other demographics still influence the rates.

Lowest rates of driver deaths

Fewer than 20 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2001-04 models during calendar years 2002-05
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Chevrolet Astrominivanvery large7444
Infiniti G35luxury carmidsize11730
BMW 7 seriesluxury carvery large11470
Toyota 4Runner4WD SUVmidsize13488
Audi A4/S4 Quattro4-door carmidsize14944
Mercedes E-Classluxury carlarge14595
Toyota Highlander4WD SUVmidsize14955
Mercedes M-Class4WD SUVmidsize141050
Toyota Siennaminivanvery large174134
Honda Odysseyminivanvery large17884
Lexus ES 330luxury carmidsize188116
Lexus RX 3302WD SUVmidsize181530
Toyota Sequoia2WD SUVlarge187110
Honda Pilot4WD SUVmidsize197146
BMW X54WD SUVmidsize198119
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

Highest rates of driver deaths

More than 140 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2001-04 models during calendar years 2002-05
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Chevrolet Blazer 2dr2WD SUVmidsize23283151134
Acura RSX2-door carsmall2028011365
Nissan 350Zsports carmidsize1936512374
Kia Spectra hatchback4-door carsmall1911285741
Pontiac Sunfire2-door carsmall1791007740
Kia Rio4-door carmini1751056835
Chevrolet Cavalier2-door carsmall171937645
Mitsubishi Eclipse2-door carsmall169769437
Dodge Neon4-door carsmall1611074926
Pontiac Grand Am2-door carmidsize160896535
Chevrolet Cavalier4-door carsmall150826835
Ford Mustangsports carmidsize150678342
Ford Ranger4WD pickupsmall1504210677
Mazda B series2WD pickupsmall147489578
Mitsubishi Eclipse convertiblesports carsmall146539333
Mitsubishi Montero Sport2WD SUVmidsize1464011275
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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