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Status Report, Vol. 52, No. 3 | May 25, 2017 Subscribe

On the road againHigher driver death rate is a downside of economic recovery

The risk of dying in a crash in a late-model vehicle has gone up slightly, as a stronger economy has led drivers to take to the road more often and in more dangerous ways. Meanwhile, a new study predicts traffic deaths will fall only slightly over the coming years, given current expectations for the economy.

The overall rate of driver deaths for 2014 models is 30 per million registered vehicle years, up from 28 for 2011 models (see "Saving lives: Improved vehicle designs bring down death rates," Jan. 29, 2015). The death rate for individual vehicles varies widely, from 0 for 11 vehicles to 104 per million registered vehicle years for the Hyundai Accent, a minicar.

The overall rate of driver deaths for 2014 models is 30 per million registered vehicle years, up from 28 for 2011 models. The death rate for individual vehicles varies widely, from 0 for 11 vehicles to 104 per million registered vehicle years for the Hyundai Accent, a minicar.

The last time IIHS calculated driver death rates, the overall rate had fallen by more than a third over three years. Researchers found that the drop was driven largely by improved vehicle designs and safety technology. Such improvements have continued, but the new results show that, by themselves, they won't be enough to eliminate traffic deaths.

"Vehicles continue to improve, performing better and better in crash tests," says David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. "The latest driver death rates show there is a limit to how much these changes can accomplish without other kinds of efforts."

The new driver death rates are based on deaths that occurred during 2012-15. The increase in the overall driver death rate for 2014 models is likely connected to the increased number of fatalities toward the end of that period.

Falling unemployment, rising crash deaths

Road deaths have been trending downward since the early 1970s, with an especially large dip beginning in 2008. However, that changed in 2015, with deaths increasing 7 percent over the previous year. Preliminary data indicate the toll increased in 2016 as well. In the new study, Charles Farmer, IIHS vice president for research and statistical services, looked at what economic forecasts can tell us about traffic fatalities over the coming years.

An increase in traffic deaths is a predictable downside to an improving economy. As unemployment falls, both vehicle miles traveled and crash deaths increase (see "Stronger economy can be bad news for highway safety," Dec. 10, 2015). In a stronger economy, people tend to drive more. Riskier, discretionary driving — for example, going out to dinner or traveling for vacation — is affected by economic fluctuations even more than day-to-day commuting. Economic conditions also affect how fast people drive.

An increase in traffic deaths is a predictable downside to an improving economy. As unemployment falls, both vehicle miles traveled and crash deaths increase. In a stronger economy, people tend to drive more. Riskier, discretionary driving — for example, going out to dinner or traveling for vacation — is affected by economic fluctuations even more than day-to-day commuting. Economic conditions also affect how fast people drive.

To estimate how the annual death toll might change in the coming years, Farmer designed a statistical model based on the connection between traffic deaths and unemployment since 1990. The model also includes calendar year, thereby accounting for safer vehicle designs and other highway safety improvements that have taken hold over time.

Farmer found that a decline in the unemployment rate from 6 percent to 5 percent is associated with a 2 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. That jump in exposure leads to an equivalent 2 percent jump in fatalities. However, after accounting for the change in miles traveled, the decline in the unemployment rate is associated with an additional 2 percent increase in road deaths. In other words, only half of the effect of an improved economy on traffic deaths is due to increased driving.   

Given the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' forecast of a 1.7 percent annual reduction in unemployment from 2014 to 2024, he predicts that the recent increase in deaths will have peaked in 2016 and estimates there will be approximately 34,400 traffic deaths in 2024, compared with 35,092 in 2015.

If unemployment doesn't change as predicted but remains steady at the 2016 rate of 4.9 percent, there will be 33,600 traffic deaths, Farmer estimates. In either case, the projected
number of crash deaths for 2024 is still higher than the 32,744 deaths seen in 2014.

The recent surge in crash avoidance technologies, along with the development of autonomous vehicles that in theory could eliminate all crashes, has the potential to bring down crash rates. However, it will take decades before such technologies are present in all new vehicles. Vehicles with varying degrees of automation will be sharing the road with conventional vehicles for some time (see Status Report special issue: autonomous vehicles, Nov. 10, 2016).

The recent surge in crash avoidance technologies, along with the development of autonomous vehicles that in theory could eliminate all crashes, has the potential to bring down crash rates. However, it will take decades before such technologies are present in all new vehicles. Vehicles with varying degrees of automation will be sharing the road with conventional vehicles for some time.

"Improvements in vehicle technology are important, but we also need to address old problems such as speeding and driving while impaired," Farmer points out.

U.S. crash deaths and predictions of model based on unemployment, 1990-2024



Tiny vehicles, high death rates

As in the past, the driver death rates show that the smallest vehicles are the most dangerous ones. Among the 10 vehicles with the highest rates, five are minicars and three are small cars. These vehicles don't protect occupants as well as larger ones, so their presence at the top of the "worst" list isn't surprising.

Among vehicle categories, 4-door minicars have the highest overall death rate of 87, while 4-wheel-drive large luxury SUVs have the lowest with 6.

Despite the increase in the overall rate, the worst vehicles actually saw some improvement. The 2014 Hyundai Accent's death rate of 104 compares with 120 for the 2011 Accent. The worst vehicle among the 2011 models was the Kia Rio with a rate of 149. The 2014 Rio's death rate is 102. Both models were redesigned in 2012, and their lower death rates may reflect the better crash-test performance of the newer designs.

IIHS has been publishing death rates per registered vehicle year by make and model since 1989 (see Status Report special issue: death rates, Nov. 25, 1989). The rates include only driver deaths because all vehicles on the road have drivers, while not all of them have passengers or the same number of passengers. Fatality counts are taken from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and registration data are from IHS Automotive. The calculated rates are adjusted for driver age and gender.

IIHS has been publishing death rates per registered vehicle year by make and model since 1989. The rates include only driver deaths because all vehicles on the road have drivers, while not all of them have passengers or the same number of passengers. Fatality counts are taken from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and registration data are from IHS Automotive.  The calculated rates are adjusted for driver age and gender.

Although the numbers reflect 2014 models, data from earlier models as far back as 2011 are included if the vehicles weren't substantially redesigned before 2014. Including older, equivalent vehicles increases the exposure and thus the reliability of the results. To be included, a vehicle must have had at least 100,000 registered vehicle years of exposure during 2012-15 or at least 20 deaths. 

See complete driver death rates by make and model on our desktop site.
Driver death rates by vehicle style and size
2014 and equivalent earlier models, 2012-15
  Overall driver deaths
per million registered vehicle years
Multiple-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
rollovers
CARS 39 24 15 5
4-DOOR        
mini 87 59 27 11
small 43 29
13 4
midsize 39 24 14 5
large 38 19 20 7
2-DOOR        
mini 36 20 17 13
small 48 26 22 12
midsize 31 15 17 4
large 80 45 34 15
SPORTS        
midsize 54 24 31 12
large 49 23 26 10
LUXURY        
midsize 17 7 10 2
large 19 9 11 6
very large 20 13 7 0
STATION WAGONS        
mini 61 38
23
11
small 38 24 15 4
midsize 16 12 3 1
MINIVANS 19 13 6 2
SUVs 21 12 8 4
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 22 14 7 3
midsize 16 7 9 5
large 21 11 9 2
very large 30 18 11 5
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 29 18 10 4
midsize 29 20 9 4
large 22 11 12 6
very large 16 16 0 0
4-WHEEL DRIVE LUXURY        
small 8 8 0 0
midsize 7 5 2 1
large 6 5 1 1
very large 18 9 9 0
2-WHEEL DRIVE LUXURY        
midsize 13 9 4 1
PICKUPS 26 14 13 6
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 22 8 14 5
large 27 15 13 5
very large 27 12 16 9
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 24 14 11 4
large 25 16 9 3
very large 28 17 12 9
Lowest rates of driver deaths
Fewer than 8 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2014 and equivalent earlier models, 2012-15
      Overall driver deaths per million
registered vehicle years
Multiple-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
rollovers
Audi A6 4WD luxury car large 0 0 0 0
Audi Q7 4WD luxury SUV large 0 0 0 0
BMW 535i/is 2WD luxury car large 0 0 0 0
BMW 535xi 4WD luxury car large 0 0 0 0
Jeep Cherokee 4WD SUV midsize 0 0 0 0
Lexus CT 200h luxury car midsize 0 0 0 0
Lexus RX 350 2WD luxury SUV midsize 0 0 0 0
Mazda CX-9 2WD SUV midsize 0 0 0 0
Mercedes-Benz M-Class 4WD luxury SUV midsize 0 0 0 0
Toyota Tacoma Double Cab long bed 4WD pickup small 0 0 0 0
Volkswagen Tiguan 2WD SUV small 0 0 0 0
Lexus RX 350 4WD luxury SUV midsize 2 2 0 0
Ford Explorer 4WD SUV midsize 4 3 1 0
Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan 2WD luxury car large 4 0 4 4
Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan 4WD luxury car large 5 5 0 0
Audi Q5 4WD luxury SUV midsize 7 4 4 0
Chevrolet Suburban 1500 2WD SUV very large 7 7 0 0
Chevrolet Volt 4-door car small 7 7 0 0
Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class 4WD luxury SUV midsize 7 7 0 0
Nissan Pathfinder 4WD luxury SUV midsize 7 0 7 7
Toyota Venza 4WD SUV midsize 7 7 0 0
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive
highest rates of driver deaths
More than 58 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years,
2014 and equivalent earlier models, 2012-15
      Overall driver deaths per million
registered vehicle years
Multiple-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
crashes
Single-vehicle
rollovers
Hyundai Accent sedan 4-door car mini 104 71 33 22
Kia Rio sedan 4-door car mini 102 80 16 5
Scion tC 2-door car small 101 46 58 27
Chevrolet Spark 4-door car mini 96 69 27 18
Nissan Versa 4-door car mini
95 61 35 14
Ford Fiesta sedan 4-door car mini 83 57 25 4
Kia Soul station wagon small 82 58 26 17
Dodge Challenger 2-door car large 81 51 29 7
Nissan Titan Crew Cab short bed 4WD pickup large 73 15 62 30
Nissan Sentra 4-door car small 72 45 25 9
Ford Focus sedan 4-door car small 68 50 15 5
Chrysler 200 4-door car midsize 67 42 24 11
Hyundai Genesis coupe 2-door car midsize 67 19 49 12
Ford Fiesta station wagon mini 63 36 30 10
Hyundai Accent station wagon mini 63 47 14 14
Mitsubishi Lancer 2WD 4-door car small 63 53 6 6
Volkswagen Golf 4-door car small 63 63 0 0
Chevrolet Impala 4-door car large 60 38 21 7
Dodge Avenger 2WD 4-door car midsize 60 41 20 7
Ford Mustang convertible sports car midsize 60 50 6 0
Nissan Maxima 4-door car midsize 59 40 17 5
2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

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