Trends in aggressivity and driver risk for cars, SUVs, and pickups: vehicle incompatibility from 1989–2016

Monfort, Samuel S. / Nolan, Joseph M.
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
August 2019

Objective: When two vehicles of different sizes collide, the occupants of the smaller vehicle are more likely to be injured than the occupants of the larger vehicle. The larger vehicle is both more protective of its own occupants and more aggressive toward occupants of the other vehicle. However, larger, heavier vehicles tend to be designed in ways that amplify their incompatibility with smaller, lighter vehicles (by having a higher ride height, for example). A 2012 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) concluded that fatalities caused by design incompatibility have decreased in recent years. The current study was conducted to update the 2012 IIHS analysis and to explore trends in vehicle incompatibility over time.
Methods: Analyses examined deaths in crashes involving 1- to 4-year-old passenger vehicles from 1989 to 2016 collected from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Trends in driver risk were examined by comparing driver death rates per million registered vehicle years across vehicle type and size. Trends in aggressivity were examined by comparing partner driver death rates across vehicle type and size.
Results: Cars and SUVs have continued their trend toward reduced incompatibility. In 1989–1992, SUVs were 132% more likely to kill the driver in a partner car compared with when a car crashed with another car. By 2013–2016, this value had dropped to 28%. Pickups and cars remain just as incompatible in 2013–2016 as they were in 1989–1992, however (159% vs. 158%). Remaining pickup incompatibility may be largely due to excess curb weight rather than to shape or design features, because light pickups were just 23% more likely to kill the driver in a partner car compared with when a car crashed with another car.
Conclusions: The trend toward reduced fleet incompatibility has continued in the latest crash data, particularly for cars and SUVs. Although pickup–car incompatibility has also decreased over time, pickups remain disproportionately aggressive toward other vehicles, possibly due to their greater average curb weight. Reducing the weight of some of the heaviest vehicles and making crash avoidance technology fitment more widespread may be promising means to reduce remaining fleet incompatibility. Identifying the source of remaining incompatibility will be important for safety improvements going forward.