Driver death rates remain high among small cars

May 28, 2020

Despite manufacturers’ efforts to make them safer, the smallest late-model cars remain the most dangerous, according to the most recent driver death rates calculated by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

Small cars and minicars accounted for 15 of the 20 models with the highest death rates for model year 2017, while nearly half of the 20 models with the lowest death rates were luxury SUVs.

“Smaller vehicles offer less protection for the driver in crashes, and their lighter mass means that they take the brunt of collisions with larger vehicles,” says Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president of vehicle research.

Very large SUVs have the lowest overall death rate of any vehicle category with 15 fatalities per million registered vehicle years. Minicars have the highest at 82.

The average driver death rate for all 2017 models increased to 36 deaths, compared with 30 for 2014 models. That’s a further increase from a low of 28 for 2011 models following a steady decline since the 1970s. The rise is consistent with a larger number of U.S. traffic fatalities over the four-year period covered by this study, compared with the previous one. From 2015 to 2018 there were 147,324 fatalities, compared with 134,905 from 2012 to 2015.

The death rates for 2017 models vary widely from 0 for seven models to 141 for the worst performer, the 2017 Ford Fiesta, a 4-door minicar that earned a rating of “marginal” in the IIHS driver-side small overlap crash test. Including the Fiesta, half the 2017 models with the highest death rates were also among the worst for model year 2014, the last time IIHS looked at the data.

IIHS has been calculating driver death rates approximately every three years since 1989. The rates include only driver deaths because all vehicles on the road have drivers, but not all of them have passengers or the same number of passengers. The number of deaths is derived from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Registration data come from IHS Markit.

Alongside vehicle safety ratings, driver death rates are another source of information consumers can use to inform their purchasing decisions.

The two types of information complement each other. IIHS ratings are designed to compare vehicles in the same size category. Frontal crash test results can’t be compared across sizes because the kinetic energy involved in the test increases with vehicle weight.

In contrast, the driver death rates can be compared across vehicle classes. However, as a comparative tool, they have their own limitations. While the death rates are adjusted for driver age and gender, they don’t capture other factors that might influence fatality rates, such as the speeds people drive, the number of miles they travel per day and the types of roads they use. 

To look at the effect of one of those factors, this year IIHS also compared the driver death rates per 10 billion miles traveled. Through a cooperative agreement in place since 2015, the IIHS-affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute was able to match Vehicle Identification Numbers from its database to odometer readings from CARFAX, an IHS Markit unit that maintains a vehicle history database. Odometer readings came from multiple sources, including title transfers, yearly inspections and routine maintenance service.

For the most part, the mileage data bolstered the original findings about vehicle size and explained some notable exceptions.

Sports cars and luxury cars, which traveled fewer miles per year than other models, showed relatively higher driver death rates by the alternative method. Death rates for pickups trended lower by miles driven.

Within each vehicle category, the order of individual vehicles did not change much. For this reason, IIHS has decided to stick with the usual registration-year method for the published make and model results.

By that method, nine of the 20 models with the lowest death rates are luxury SUVs, two more are midsize luxury cars, and four others are minivans or very large SUVs. The overall death rates for luxury vehicles are also substantially lower than the averages for nonluxury vehicles of the same sizes.

Luxury vehicles often come equipped with advanced safety features that aren’t widely installed on less expensive ones, such as blind spot warning and lane departure prevention.

Notably, two small cars defy the average for their size and class, whether driver death rates are measured against registered vehicle years or miles traveled. The Volkswagen Golf and the Nissan Leaf have death rates of 0 and 5 per million registered vehicle years, respectively. Their rates per 10 billion miles were the same. For comparison, the overall rate for small cars was 61 deaths per million vehicle years and 45 per 10 billion miles.

The Golf’s results are particularly remarkable, considering that the 2014 version was among the worst performers, with a death rate of 63 per million vehicle years, prior to a redesign for the 2015 model year.

Although the number of miles driven was not a factor, the results for the Leaf, an all-electric car, may reflect when and where electric vehicles are driven.

The latest rates are based on fatalities that occurred from 2015 to 2018 for vehicles from the 2017 model year, as well as earlier models with the same designs and features. The numbers represent the estimated risks for 2017 models, but the data include models from as far back as 2014 if the vehicles have not been substantially redesigned over the intervening period. Including these older, equivalent vehicles makes the sample size larger and therefore increases the reliability of the results. To be included, a vehicle must have had at least 100,000 registered vehicle years of exposure from 2015 to 2018 or at least 20 deaths.

Driver death rates by vehicle style and size

Registered vehicle years vs. mileage
2017 and equivalent earlier models, 2015-18

  Deaths per million registration years Deaths per 10 billion miles Average annual mileage
Overall 36 26 13,794
Cars 48 36 13,471
4-door
Mini 108 78 13,897
Small 62 45 13,772
Midsize 43 30 14,468
Large 52 36 14,618
2-door
Mini 41 44 9,272
Small 45 39 11,410
Midsize 44 36 12,207
Large 67 58 11,656
Sports
Midsize 51 63 8,045
Large 48 50 9,529
Luxury
Midsize 22 20 10,961
Large 19 19 10,244
Very large 20 19 10,478
Station wagons
Mini 65 53 12,419
Small 54 40 13,519
Midsize 4 3 13,428
Minivans 22 15 14,939
SUVs 25 19 13,589
4-wheel drive
Small 24 19 12,684
Midsize 21 15 13,573
Large 22 15 15,130
Very large 7 4 17,969
2-wheel drive
Small 42 31 13,774
Midsize 34 24 14,429
Large 26 17 15,510
Very large 30 17 18,465
4-wheel drive luxury
Small 25 23 10,629
Midsize 9 7 11,827
Large 5 4 12,476
Very large 19 13 15,432
2-wheel drive luxury
Small 44 40 11,121
Midsize 11 9 12,056
Large 26 18 14,841
Pickups 29 18 16,155
4-wheel drive
Small 24 18 13,429
Large 26 17 15,526
Very large 27 15 18,817
2-wheel drive
Small 31 21 14,644
Large 38 23 16,551
Very large 28 13 22,167

Lowest rates of driver deaths

Fewer than 9 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 2017 and equivalent earlier models, 2015-18

2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

      Overall driver deaths per million registered vehicle years Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
GMC Yukon XL 1500 4WD SUV Very large 0 0 0 0
Infiniti QX60 2WD Luxury SUV Midsize 0 0 0 0
Land Rover Range Rover Evoque 4WD Luxury SUV Small 0 0 0 0
Lexus NX 200t 4WD Luxury SUV Midsize 0 0 0 0
Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan 4WD Luxury car Midsize 0 0 0 0
Porsche Cayenne 4WD Luxury SUV Large 0 0 0 0
Volkswagen Golf 4-door car Small 0 0 0 0
Lexus GX 460 4WD Luxury SUV Large 3 0 3 4
Subaru Outback Station wagon Midsize 3 2 1 0
Acura RDX 2WD Luxury SUV Midsize 4 4 0 0
BMW X5 4WD Luxury SUV Midsize 4 2 2 0
BMW X3 4WD Luxury SUV Midsize 5 0 5 5
Nissan Leaf 4-door car Small 5 0 5 0
Cadillac Escalade 4WD Luxury SUV Large 6 0 6 0
Lexus CT 200h Luxury car Midsize 6 6 0 0
Mitsubishi Outlander 4WD SUV Small 7 7 0 0
Toyota Sienna 4WD Minivan Very large 7 4 4 0
Toyota Tundra Crew Max 4WD Pickup Large 7 0 7 2
Chevrolet Suburban 1500 4WD SUV Very large 8 8 0 0
Honda Odyssey Minivan Very large 8 4 5 2

Highest rates of driver deaths

More than 65 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, 2017 and equivalent earlier models, 2015-18

2WD: 2-wheel drive; 4WD: 4-wheel drive

      Overall driver deaths per million registered vehicle years Multiple-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle crashes Single-vehicle rollovers
Ford Fiesta 4-door car Mini 141 98 46 13
Hyundai Accent 4-door car Mini 116 85 28 9
Chevrolet Sonic 4-door car Small 98 64 34 10
Nissan Versa Note Station wagon Small 96 80 12 7
Fiat 500 2-door car Mini 95 60 38 37
Hyundai Elantra 4-door car Small 89 71 15 9
Kia Forte 4-door car Small 89 63 24 2
Nissan Versa 4-door car Small 88 49 42 14
Kia Rio 4-door car Mini 87 51 38 0
Ford Mustang GT coupe Sports car Midsize 81 58 23 12
Hyundai Accent Station wagon Mini 81 64 17 9
Nissan Sentra 4-door car Small 81 53 26 11
Chevrolet Sonic Station wagon Small 74 59 13 13
Chevrolet Trax 2WD SUV Small 73 40 37 20
Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback 4-door car Mini 72 52 18 5
Kia Soul Station wagon Small 70 50 19 10
Buick Verano 4-door car Midsize 68 35 33 14
Ford Focus 4-door car Small 68 48 19 9
Nissan Maxima 4-door car Midsize 68 33 38 4
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 4WD SUV Small 67 45 21 5

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