What You Should Know About Pickup Trucks and Safety

Pickup trucks have one or two basic safety advantages and a surprising number of disadvantages. Jump to a section below:

Safety Advantages: Goliath vs. David

The advantages are in terms of passive safety — when a collision occurs — and include the truck's weight and height. Most motorists recognize that a heavier vehicle fares better in a crash with a lighter one, all other things being equal (which they seldom are). A pickup's height relative to other vehicles also gives it an advantage in that it meets bumper-to-bumper with other trucks.

In a collision with a lower car, the truck typically comes out on top — sometimes literally. So-called crash incompatibility means the truck can ride up over the car's floor pan, its most solid structure, bypassing the car's crumple zone and plowing into the passenger compartment. The best scenario for both vehicles is for their crumple zones to engage each other and absorb the crash energy as much as possible. Still, the car almost always loses. So overall, a pickup's two main safety advantages come at the expense of other vehicles.
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Safety Disadvantages: Goliath vs. Physics
The Honda Ridgeline has all-wheel drive on its base model, which is unusual for pickup trucks.

The Honda Ridgeline has all-wheel drive on its base model, which is unusual for pickup trucks.

Most of the pickup truck's safety disadvantages involve active safety — the ability to avoid a collision in the first place. Pickups' weight gives them longer stopping distances than cars. Their size and construction make them less nimble and less capable of avoiding collisions. Though their center of gravity generally isn't as high as that of a fully enclosed sport utility vehicle, pickups are still more prone to rollovers than are cars. The percentage of rollovers among all crashes recorded by the U.S. Department of Transportation is relatively small: 9 percent in 2007, the most recent data available. Why the focus on such small percentages? Because rollovers make up 35 percent of all fatal crashes. In 2007, rollovers accounted for 59 percent of SUV fatalities, 46 percent of pickup truck deaths and 25 percent of car fatalities, according to the DOT's Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

A pickup truck's typically lopsided weight distribution is an inherent shortcoming. When the cargo box is empty, most of the weight is in the front — yet the drive wheels are in the rear. (For the purposes of this safety examination, all pickup trucks have rear-wheel drive as a base. The all-wheel-drive Honda Ridgeline is a notable exception.) This requires the lighter end to push the heavier end, which leads easily to fishtailing on slick road surfaces. The remedies are far from perfect. Adding weight to the cargo floor above the rear axle can help, but it requires foresight. The added weight can either improve braking or extend the stopping distance, depending in part on the road surface; one can't predict which.

To this end, pickups should be equipped with four-wheel antilock brakes. Fortunately, they're standard on all new pickups except Dodge's Dakota, which has two-wheel ABS standard. This isn't good enough, in part because modern ABS also provides electronic brake-force distribution between the front and rear wheels. It apportions the right amount of braking to the rear wheels depending on the cargo load, which can vary dramatically in a pickup. Fortunately, Dodge offers four-wheel ABS as an option, packaged with side-impact airbags. It will become standard at some point soon, because four-wheel ABS is a prerequisite for electronic stability systems, which NHTSA will require on all models for 2012.

Pickups can be driven safely, but they can't be driven like cars. Even in favorable weather and traction conditions, heavy, high-riding trucks have limitations.
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Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive mitigates one problem: a lack of traction at the rear wheels. However, there are many drawbacks:

  • Where NHTSA's Rollover Ratings once revealed a higher overall likelihood of rollover in pickups equipped with four-wheel drive, it now varies from model to model. 4WD hardware can lower a vehicle's center of gravity, but it may also come with elevated ground clearance, which has the opposite effect. The rollover likelihood between 4x4 and 4x2 versions of a given model typically varies only a few percent. Real-world figures show more rollover fatalities in 4x4 pickup trucks than in 4x2 versions, but it's possible that this reflects the terrain on which each type is used and the resulting rollover likelihood.
  • Overwhelmingly, pickups have the simplest, part-time four-wheel-drive design, which has to be activated manually. An unexpected patch of snow or ice will have the same effect on a 4x4 in rear-drive mode as it would on a 4x2.
  • Even when engaged, part-time four-wheel drive is far from ideal. It's a "dumb" system, incapable of transferring torque only to where it's needed. It also should not be used on dry pavement. Doing so can cause damage and increase the chance of rollover.
  • The added hardware is in the front, further unbalancing the weight, which can exacerbate the unexpected-snow-or-ice scenario listed above.
  • The four-wheel-drive system's added weight may extend stopping distances.
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Safety Features

In terms of safety feature offerings, pickups once again lag most other vehicle types, though the gap is narrowing as manufacturers add standard ABS and electronic stability systems, which help keep vehicles on their intended course in low-traction situations. They also minimize some of the conditions that can lead to rollover.

Likewise, side-impact airbags are less common in pickup trucks, with only some manufacturers offering both types: conventional side-impact airbags for front-occupant torso protection and side curtain airbags that cover the side windows. They're standard in the Ford F-150, Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tundra, and are available from Nissan, Suzuki and the Toyota Tacoma.

For the sake of argument, pickup trucks' higher stature better protects them when struck in the side. (Highway Loss Data Institute data show that occupant fatalities from side impacts are considerably fewer in pickups than in cars.) Still, many other vehicles on the road ride as high or higher, and side-impact airbags are well worth having. Curtain airbags have proved effective in preventing occupant ejection from the vehicle, particularly in rollovers.
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Children in Pickups
Children or pets should not ride in the bed of a Ford F-150 or any other pickup truck.

Children or pets should not ride in the bed of a Ford F-150 or any other pickup truck.

For child safety, pickups again are less than ideal. No child — or adult or animal — should ever be carried in a pickup's cargo bed, be it covered or uncovered. Even a modest evasive maneuver can spell death for the passenger. The risk to a passenger in a cargo area is 10.4 times that of other occupants involved in collisions, according to HLDI. More than 30 states have outlawed the practice, and that number is likely to increase.

The safest place in a vehicle for a child is in the center of the backseat. The problem with pickups is that most of them have no backseat or have one that's too small or faces the wrong way. Extended cab pickups may not have enough room for a child-safety seat, either overall or in terms of the seat cushion, which must support every inch of the child seat's base.

Though it's rare now, small pickups may have jump seats that face sideways. Even if one could secure a seat there, it's unsafe for any occupant to face sideways in a moving vehicle.

The list continues. Child seats can be difficult for a parent to install properly due to the vehicle's height and the top-tether anchor's design. In some extended cab and crew cab pickups, the top tether must be passed through a loop atop the backrest and fed downward to a separate ring. This ostensibly gives enough slack to tension the strap properly.

Because children don't belong in the front seat, a regular cab pickup (or an extended cab with too small a backseat) is the worst option. The only acceptable exception is if the passenger airbag (front and side, if equipped) is deactivated. Older designs may offer a key switch that disables the airbag. New models have the Occupant Classification System, now required: Using weight sensors, it determines if the passenger is heavy/large enough for the airbag to deploy and, in some cases, how forcefully it should do so.
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Young Drivers and Pickups

Having become image vehicles, pickup trucks have taken on the role that muscle cars held when many of today's parents were teen drivers. In terms of safety, this isn't much of an improvement. Yes, the trucks are heavier and higher, but they're less controllable and more prone to "single-vehicle" accidents, which means the vehicle crashes without coming into contact with another vehicle. A loss of control, leaving the road and rolling over all qualify.

Drivers under age 25 have the highest death rate of any group, and the crashes in which the youngest and least-experienced drivers are involved are disproportionately single-vehicle. In 2005, 60 percent of all pickup-truck fatalities resulted from single-vehicle accidents, second only to SUVs at 63 percent. (Only 42 percent of car deaths resulted from single-vehicle accidents.) Put these HLDI statistics together with a lack of experience and the youthful delusion of immortality, and you have a recipe for disaster. Sorry, guys. You'll be safer in a Camry.
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© Cars.com 11/18/09