Cars are safer than they’ve ever been. Looking at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) yearly fatality statistics from 2019, you’re less than half as likely to die in a car accident than you were in 1980 (22.5 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 11.0 in 2019). Of course, those numbers are also influenced by changes in infrastructure, policy, and driver behavior over the past three decades.
We’ve covered the safest cars and safest SUVs on the market, but is one category of vehicles safer than the other? Crash test results can’t be compared across segments, as kinetic energy is directly tied to vehicle weight. On the other hand, vehicle death rates can be evaluated across size categories.
That being said, even death rate statistics don’t tell the whole story, as they don’t factor in the speeds at which people in different vehicle segments drive, or age, gender, or the types of roads they use. As much as manufacturers would like you to believe their pint-sized subcompacts are as safe as their pickups, that’s not quite the story told by the data.
So Are Bigger Vehicles Safer?
The IIHS issued a status report newsletter in May of 2020 revealing that driver deaths are still the highest among small cars. This data separates vehicles into cars, minivans, SUVs, and pickups, with each collection of vehicles being sorted into size categories.
In terms of four-door sedans and hatchbacks, the largest size category among these vehicles shows 36 deaths per 10 billion miles while the smallest reports 78—more than double. The case is similar with SUVs; you’re almost four times as likely to die in a 4WD SUV categorized as small than one that falls into the very large category. In nearly every segment (with the exception of rear-wheel-drive pickups and two-door cars), the death rate is highest in the smallest size category.
Likewise, there are only 20 vehicles with fewer than nine driver deaths per million registered vehicle years, with the data limited to the 2014-2017 model years. Of those 20, only four fall into the small category (the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi Outlander), while the rest are midsize or larger. Of the 20 models with the highest death rates, 15 of them are classified as small or mini. There is an obvious trend in the data that yes, drivers are less likely to die in larger vehicles.
Why is that the case? In short, a heavier vehicle carries more momentum than a lighter one. Kinetic energy is equal to the product of half an object’s mass and the square of its velocity, and in a multivehicle collision, it’s the lighter car that will feel the effect of all that energy when each vehicle rapidly decelerates.
Are SUVs and Pickups Safer Than Cars?
Although we’d love to tell you lightweight sports cars are the safest cars on the road, unfortunately that’s not the case according to the data. Once again considering vehicle fatalities per 10 billion miles, the average among cars is 36 deaths compared to 19 and 18 for SUVs and trucks, respectively.
The most deadly subsegment of vehicles is mini four-door cars, which have 78 deaths per 10 billion miles. Meanwhile, the worst SUV segment (small two-wheel-drive luxury) reports 40 fatalities and the most dangerous pickups (large two-wheel drive) show 23 deaths per 10 billion miles.
That being said, there’s one segment of vehicles for which the IIHS reported fewer fatalities than cars, trucks, or SUVs. Of course, we’re talking about minivans. According to the IIHS’s data, minivans are only responsible for 15 driver deaths per 10 billion miles. Our guess is that this has to do with weight, of course, but also that drivers may be more cautious with kids in the back.
Finally, no matter what size vehicle you’re driving, there’s no doubt that a properly maintained car, truck, or SUV being operated safely for the conditions and with an alert, attentive driver behind the wheel are key ingredients to safety.
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