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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 5 | June 9, 2011 Subscribe

Death rates by modelSUV drivers are among least likely to be killed

Dying in a crash has become much less likely than it used to be for people in all types of passenger vehicles. For occupants of SUVs, the change has been dramatic. In the past, the top-heavy vehicles frequently rolled over, giving many models some of the highest driver death rates.

But drivers of today's SUVs are among the least likely to die in a crash, the Institute's latest calculations of driver death rates show. The change is due largely to the widespread availability of electronic stability control (ESC), which helps prevent rollovers. With the propensity to roll over reduced, SUVs are on balance safer than cars because their bigger size and weight provide greater protection in a crash.

The overall driver death rate for 2005-08 models during 2006-09 was 48 per million registered vehicle years. Rates for each of the more than 150 vehicles span a huge range from 0 for 7 models to 143 for the Nissan 350Z sports car. When the rates are looked at by vehicle style, minivans have the best record with a driver death rate of 25. SUVs aren't far behind at 28. Pickups average 52 driver deaths per million registration years. Cars average 56, but smaller cars fare worse than bigger ones. For example, 4-door minicars have a death rate of 82, compared with 46 for very large 4-doors.

"The rollover risk in SUVs used to outweigh their size/weight advantage, but that's no longer the case, thanks to ESC," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research.

Pound for pound, SUVs have lower death rates

Driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 2005-08 models during calendar years 2006-09
  CARS SUVs 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 71 44 27 13
2,501-3,000 lbs. 70 40 30 14
3,001-3,500 lbs. 51 27 24 13 39 22 17 7 66 30 37 21
3,501-4,000 lbs. 47 25 23 8 23 12 11 6 60 19 40 25
4,001-4,500 lbs. 41 20 21 6 30 14 16 8 38 16 22 10
4,501-5,000 lbs. 21 11 9 3 54 18 37 17
> 5,000 lbs. 20 6 14 7 49 12 37 25

It's not just weight that gives SUVs an advantage. It's also their height and other factors. When cars and SUVs of similar weight are compared, the SUVs have lower death rates.

The Institute computes driver-only death rates because the presence of passengers varies. Across vehicle types, size is a huge factor. All but 3 of the 26 vehicles with the lowest death rates are midsize or larger, while more than half of those with the highest rates are small vehicles or minicars.

Still, risk varies widely, even among vehicles of the same type and size. Among 4-door midsize cars, for example, the lowest death rate was 19 for the Honda Accord, and the highest was 99 for the 2007 Chevrolet Malibu, which continued to be sold in the 2008 model year as the Malibu Classic. The redesigned 2008 Malibu fared better with 67.

While many of the differences in death rates reflect characteristics of the vehicles themselves, other factors also come into play. The high death rate of the 2007 Malibu/2008 Malibu Classic, for example, could be connected to the fact that many were sold as fleet vehicles, which may be driven differently from private vehicles. Death rates may have been held down for certain sports cars and convertibles because they often aren't driven as much as other vehicles.

Calculating death rates

Researchers computed driver death rates for all models with at least 100,000 registered vehicle years during 2006-09. (A registered year is 1 vehicle registered for 1 year or 2 vehicles for 6 months each.) Although the vehicles span 2005-08 models, only those equivalent to 2008 models are included. In other words, if a vehicle was completely redesigned for the 2007 model year, the 2005-06 versions weren't counted. The exception is the Malibu.

For the first time since the Institute began comparing driver death rates among vehicles in the 1980s (see Status Report special issue: occupant death rates by car series, Nov. 25, 1989), researchers adjusted for a variety of factors that affect crash rates, including driver age and gender, calendar year, vehicle age, and vehicle density at the garaging location. Previously, researchers had adjusted only for driver age and gender.

"The adjusted driver death rates do a better job of teasing out differences among vehicles, but they can only go so far. For one thing, people don't behave the same when they're behind the wheel of a sports car as when they're driving a minivan. And some people are more susceptible to injury and death for reasons that can't completely be adjusted for."

Driver death counts are from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Registration data are from R.L. Polk & Co., and information about driver age and gender and vehicle density are from the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Changing risk

Because the latest round of driver death rates has been fine-tuned in a way that previous ones weren't, it's impossible to do an apples-to-apples comparison, but some broad trends are clear. One is that the overall death rate for all vehicles of 48 per million represents a large decline. The rate for 2001-04 models during 2002-05 was 79 (see Status Report special issue: driver death rates, April 19, 2007). Before that, it was 87 for 1999-2002 models and 110 for 1989-1993 models.

The relative risk of different types of vehicles also has changed. For 1999-2002 models, the average death rate for SUVs was 82 per million, nearly as high as the 88 per million for cars. In the new analysis, the death rate for SUVs is half that of cars.

Before the mid-1980s, when production of some small and rollover-prone SUVs was stopped, SUV death rates were much higher than those of cars. Throughout the 1990s, cars and SUVs had similar death rates. Recently, death rates for SUVs have fallen much faster than those of cars.

This change parallels the increase in ESC availability. The safety feature was offered in the United States as optional equipment on luxury vehicles beginning in the late 1990s. Among 2002 models, ESC was standard on 28 percent of cars and 10 percent of SUVs and wasn't available even as an option on pickups. By the 2008 model year, it was standard on 65 percent of cars, 96 percent of SUVs, and 11 percent of pickups.

ESC's role is evident when looking at death rates by crash type. The rate of rollover deaths — 13 per million — is less than half of what it was for 1999-2002 models, and SUVs now have lower than average rollover death rates. Pickups, few of which had ESC by 2008, have a much higher rollover death rate of 21.

Death rates and crash tests

Among the 26 vehicles with the lowest driver death rates, most earn good front and side crashworthiness ratings from the Institute. Many wouldn't qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK under today's standards because of marginal or acceptable rollover ratings. However, all but one model has standard ESC, decreasing the chance that roof strength would come into play.

Among the 26 vehicles with the highest death rates, more have poor or marginal side ratings than good or acceptable ones, and none has standard ESC. The Institute doesn't test all vehicles, and some models with the best and worst death rates aren't rated.

Driver death rates by vehicle size and body size

  OVERALL Multiple-
vehicle
crashes
Single-
vehicle
crashes
Single-
vehicle
rollovers
CARS 56 30 25 12
4-DOOR        
mini 82 52 29 14
small 72 42 30 13
midsize 51 28 23 10
large 55 30 25 10
very large 46 29 17 4
2-DOOR        
mini 70 35 35 18
small 62 25 36 17
midsize 58 29 29 18
SPORTS        
mini 83 58 25 17
small 36 15 21 13
midsize 80 27 53 33
LUXURY        
midsize 31 17 15 5
large 24 11 13 5
very large 39 18 21 6
STATION WAGON        
mini 61 29 32 15
small 59 36 23 14
midsize 43 18 24 18
large 47 27 20 6
MINIVANS 25 17 7 2
SUVs 28 14 14 6
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 31 16 15 6
midsize 23 11 12 5
large 15 6 9 4
very large 19 5 14 5
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 41 24 17 7
midsize 35 16 19 10
large 35 21 14 6
PICKUP TRUCKS 52 17 35 21
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 42 15 27 16
large 46 12 34 21
very large 46 9 38 30
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 62 25 38 21
large 57 19 38 19
very large 46 20 26 24

Lowest rates of driver deaths

Fewer than 22 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2005-08 models during calendar years 2006-09
      OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
Audi A6 4-door 4WD luxury car large 0 0 0 0
Mercedes E-Class 4-door 4WD luxury car large 0 0 0 0
Toyota Sienna minivan very large 0 0 0 0
Ford Edge 4WD SUV midsize 0 0 0 0
Nissan Armada 4WD SUV large 0 0 0 0
Land Rover Range Rover Sport 4WD SUV large 0 0 0 0
Land Rover LR3 4WD SUV large 0 0 0 0
Honda CR-V 4WD SUV small 7 4 4 0
Jeep Grand Cherokee 4WD SUV midsize 11 0 11 5
Acura MDX 4WD SUV midsize 11 0 11 11
Mercedes E-Class 4-door luxury car large 12 12 0 0
Lexus RX 400h 4WD SUV midsize 12 12 0 0
Lexus GX 470 4WD SUV large 13 13 0 0
Mercedes M-Class 4WD SUV midsize 14 14 0 0
Saab 9-3 4-door luxury car midsize 16 8 8 8
Kia Sedona minivan very large 16 10 5 0
Honda Odyssey minivan very large 17 12 5 3
Jeep Wrangler 4WD SUV midsize 17 0 17 0
Honda Accord 4-door car midsize 19 11 8 4
Jeep Wrangler 2-door 4WD SUV small 20 10 10 5
Honda Pilot 4WD SUV midsize 20 20 0 0
Honda Pilot 2WD SUV midsize 20 5 15 0
Dodge Dakota crew cab 4WD pickup small 20 3 17 9
Acura 3.2 TL luxury car midsize 21 13 8 0
Acura RL luxury car large 21 10 10 0
Nissan Armada 2WD SUV large 21 14 7 0
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

Highest rates of driver deaths

More than 75 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2005-08 models during calendar years 2006-09
      OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
Nissan 350Z 2-door sports car midsize 143 53 90 63
Nissan Titan crew cab 2WD pickup large 126 31 94 81
Chevrolet Aveo 4-door car mini 119 60 60 33
Chevrolet Cobalt 4-door car small 117 63 54 23
Nissan Titan extended cab 2WD pickup large 111 35 77 42
Kia Spectra station wagon small 102 63 39 24
Chevrolet Malibu Classic 4-door car midsize 99 67 32 28
Hyundai Tiburon 2-door car small 96 33 63 22
Nissan Versa 4-door car small 96 36 60 30
Chevrolet Colorado extended cab 2WD pickup small 93 39 54 31
Nissan Titan crew cab 4WD pickup large 92 18 74 68
Kia Rio 4-door car mini 89 64 25 10
Kia Spectra 4-door car small 87 49 38 20
Mazda Miata MX-5 sports car mini 83 62 21 21
Subaru Legacy 4-door car midsize 83 38 45 6
Mitsubishi Eclipse 2-door car midsize 82 31 51 46
Mitsubishi Galant 4-door car midsize 82 16 66 29
Nissan Maxima 4-door car midsize 82 36 46 20
Ford Ranger 2WD pickup small 81 47 34 17
Hyundai Elantra 4-door car small 80 59 21 10
Ford Ranger extended cab 4WD pickup small 79 36 43 27
Toyota Yaris 2-door car mini 79 46 33 7
Nissan Frontier crew cab 2WD pickup small 77 31 46 27
Buick Lucerne 4-door car large 77 54 23 6
Buick LaCrosse 4-door car large 76 37 39 11
Chrysler Sebring 4-door car midsize 76 30 46 15
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

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