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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
Vehicle weightOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rolloversOVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
≤ 2,500 lbs71442713
2,501-3,000 lbs.70403014
3,001-3,500 lbs.51272413392217766303721
3,501-4,000 lbs.4725238231211660194025
4,001-4,500 lbs.4120216301416838162210
4,501-5,000 lbs.21119354183717
> 5,000 lbs.20614749123725

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

very large4629174
very large3918216
very large195145
very large4693830
very large46202624

Lowest rates of driver deaths

Fewer than 22 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2005-08 models during calendar years 2006-09
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Audi A6 4-door 4WDluxury carlarge0000
Mercedes E-Class 4-door 4WDluxury carlarge0000
Toyota Siennaminivanvery large0000
Ford Edge4WD SUVmidsize0000
Nissan Armada4WD SUVlarge0000
Land Rover Range Rover Sport4WD SUVlarge0000
Land Rover LR34WD SUVlarge0000
Honda CR-V4WD SUVsmall7440
Jeep Grand Cherokee4WD SUVmidsize110115
Acura MDX4WD SUVmidsize1101111
Mercedes E-Class 4-doorluxury carlarge121200
Lexus RX 400h4WD SUVmidsize121200
Lexus GX 4704WD SUVlarge131300
Mercedes M-Class4WD SUVmidsize141400
Saab 9-3 4-doorluxury carmidsize16888
Kia Sedonaminivanvery large161050
Honda Odysseyminivanvery large171253
Jeep Wrangler4WD SUVmidsize170170
Honda Accord4-door carmidsize191184
Jeep Wrangler 2-door4WD SUVsmall2010105
Honda Pilot4WD SUVmidsize202000
Honda Pilot2WD SUVmidsize205150
Dodge Dakota crew cab4WD pickupsmall203179
Acura 3.2 TLluxury carmidsize211380
Acura RLluxury carlarge2110100
Nissan Armada2WD SUVlarge211470
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
   OVERALLMultiple-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle crashesSingle-vehicle rollovers
Nissan 350Z 2-doorsports carmidsize143539063
Nissan Titan crew cab2WD pickuplarge126319481
Chevrolet Aveo4-door carmini119606033
Chevrolet Cobalt4-door carsmall117635423
Nissan Titan extended cab2WD pickuplarge111357742
Kia Spectrastation wagonsmall102633924
Chevrolet Malibu Classic4-door carmidsize99673228
Hyundai Tiburon2-door carsmall96336322
Nissan Versa4-door carsmall96366030
Chevrolet Colorado extended cab2WD pickupsmall93395431
Nissan Titan crew cab4WD pickuplarge92187468
Kia Rio4-door carmini89642510
Kia Spectra4-door carsmall87493820
Mazda Miata MX-5sports carmini83622121
Subaru Legacy4-door carmidsize8338456
Mitsubishi Eclipse2-door carmidsize82315146
Mitsubishi Galant4-door carmidsize82166629
Nissan Maxima4-door carmidsize82364620
Ford Ranger2WD pickupsmall81473417
Hyundai Elantra4-door carsmall80592110
Ford Ranger extended cab4WD pickupsmall79364327
Toyota Yaris2-door carmini7946337
Nissan Frontier crew cab2WD pickupsmall77314627
Buick Lucerne4-door carlarge7754236
Buick LaCrosse4-door carlarge76373911
Chrysler Sebring4-door carmidsize76304615
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

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