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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
  OVERALL Multiple-
mini 148 92 55 32
small 103 61 42 20
midsize 71 41 30 14
large 81 53 27 13
very large 61 43 19 3
mini 137 75 61 48
small 134 65 68 37
midsize 103 50 52 26
mini 107 54 54 26
small 71 23 48 15
midsize 115 51 64 31
large 41 13 28 16
midsize 33 17 16 6
large 41 24 17 4
very large 34 15 19 10
small 50 37 11 6
small 87 48 38 23
midsize 51 24 28 12
large 99 83 11 4
large 66 44 21 9
very large 39 25 14 8
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 77 34 43 29
midsize 59 20 40 28
large 47 16 33 23
very large 76 21 57 47
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 76 40 37 23
midsize 81 32 51 38
large 57 20 39 34
4-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 97 33 64 42
large 83 27 57 38
very large 89 19 70 53
2-WHEEL DRIVE        
small 110 50 59 37
large 102 38 66 40
very large 60 23 37 24

Influence of vehicle weight

Driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 2001-04 models during 2002-05
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 94 55 38 17
2,501-3,000 lbs. 115 64 50 26 131 72 59 41 96 45 50 35
3,001-3,500 lbs. 77 43 33 16 74 34 41 27 115 47 69 44
3,501-4,000 lbs. 55 35 19 7 67 28 39 28 104 37 69 44
4,001-4,500 lbs. 38 22 16 8 65 21 47 35 93 33 60 38
4,501-5,000 lbs. 34 18 15 4 65 23 44 32 55 24 32 21
> 5,000 lbs. 47 15 34 25 81 20 61 45

— 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
      OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
Chevrolet Astro minivan very large 7 4 4 4
Infiniti G35 luxury car midsize 11 7 3 0
BMW 7 series luxury car very large 11 4 7 0
Toyota 4Runner 4WD SUV midsize 13 4 8 8
Audi A4/S4 Quattro 4-door car midsize 14 9 4 4
Mercedes E-Class luxury car large 14 5 9 5
Toyota Highlander 4WD SUV midsize 14 9 5 5
Mercedes M-Class 4WD SUV midsize 14 10 5 0
Toyota Sienna minivan very large 17 4 13 4
Honda Odyssey minivan very large 17 8 8 4
Lexus ES 330 luxury car midsize 18 8 11 6
Lexus RX 330 2WD SUV midsize 18 15 3 0
Toyota Sequoia 2WD SUV large 18 7 11 0
Honda Pilot 4WD SUV midsize 19 7 14 6
BMW X5 4WD SUV midsize 19 8 11 9
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
      OVERALL Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
Chevrolet Blazer 2dr 2WD SUV midsize 232 83 151 134
Acura RSX 2-door car small 202 80 113 65
Nissan 350Z sports car midsize 193 65 123 74
Kia Spectra hatchback 4-door car small 191 128 57 41
Pontiac Sunfire 2-door car small 179 100 77 40
Kia Rio 4-door car mini 175 105 68 35
Chevrolet Cavalier 2-door car small 171 93 76 45
Mitsubishi Eclipse 2-door car small 169 76 94 37
Dodge Neon 4-door car small 161 107 49 26
Pontiac Grand Am 2-door car midsize 160 89 65 35
Chevrolet Cavalier 4-door car small 150 82 68 35
Ford Mustang sports car midsize 150 67 83 42
Ford Ranger 4WD pickup small 150 42 106 77
Mazda B series 2WD pickup small 147 48 95 78
Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible sports car small 146 53 93 33
Mitsubishi Montero Sport 2WD SUV midsize 146 40 112 75
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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