How Safe Are Pickup Trucks?

2004 GMC Canyon
The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon (pictured) offer roof-rail side-impact airbags as optional equipment.

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When comparing the safety of pickup trucks to other vehicles, take two factors into consideration: size and stability. The size of a vehicle is closely related to its weight, and the stability of a truck affects its potential for rollovers.

Many drivers believe they are safer in a pickup truck than in a car. Why? Because they feel they are in a stronger, larger vehicle. You also sit higher in a full-size truck; therefore, you may see trouble coming in time to make an appropriate maneuver. That, in itself, generates a greater sense of security.

Now that trucks have increased in popularity, they account for a larger portion of motor vehicle deaths. The number of occupant fatalities in passenger cars dropped from 25,063 in 1989 to 20,320 in 2001 and then edged upward to 20,415 in 2002. In contrast, the number of deaths in light trucks — which includes pickups, sport utility vehicles and vans — climbed from 8,551 in 1989 to 12,182 in 2002, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Light-truck fatalities accounted for nearly 36 percent of the total vehicle-occupant deaths during 2002.

2004 Nissan Titan
The Nissan Titan (pictured) comes standard with side-impact airbags, while curtain-type airbags are optional.

According to federal fatality statistics, pickups aren’t as prone to rollovers as SUVs, but trucks are more likely to roll during a crash than passenger cars. During 2002, 4,768 passenger-car occupants were killed in rollover crashes versus 2,448 SUV occupants and 2,742 people in pickups. About 45 percent of occupant fatalities in pickups occurred in rollover crashes, whereas the figure for passenger cars was 23 percent.

Rollovers are related to a vehicle’s stability during a turn. A vehicle’s center of gravity and its track width, which is the distance between the left- and right-side wheels, both influence stability. A high center of gravity combined with a narrow track can make a vehicle more likely to tip over during sharp changes in direction. This problem is most pronounced in four-wheel-drive pickups, which have a higher ground clearance.

NHTSA provides a vehicle’s rollover-resistance rating, and it’s similar to the star rating used for crash tests. Critics allege that these ratings don’t demonstrate a vehicle’s real-world ability to withstand rollover conditions. These ratings have been based on a “static stability factor” that, simply, is a numerical comparison of the ratio between the height of the vehicle’s center of gravity and its track width. Starting with the 2004 model year, a dynamic driving maneuver known as the “fishhook” test will be included in rollover-resistance scores.

Not All Pickups Are Equal in Safety
Since the 1999 model year, federal regulations have required light trucks to meet the same major safety requirements as passenger cars. These regulations require that pickups include dual front airbags and meet side-impact structural standards. Heavy-duty models with gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs) above 8,500 pounds remain exempt from certain standards — most notably, airbag requirements.

2004 Ford F-350 Super Duty
Though it’s exempt from federal airbag requirements, Ford’s F-350 Super Duty has dual front airbags.

Trucks such as the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500, Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500, Ford F-250 Super Duty and F-350 Super Duty, and GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 have dual front airbags, just like all vehicles. Dodge offers roof-mounted side curtain-type airbags for its light-duty and heavy-duty trucks. Nissan includes side-impact airbags in its new Titan and makes curtain airbags optional.

Many, but by no means all, pickup trucks have standard four-wheel antilock brakes. Several still come with rear-wheel ABS, but a four-wheel system might be optional. As a rule, safety devices tend to arrive on pickup trucks some time after they first appear in passenger cars — if ever.

Driver identity also plays a role in safety. Pickup trucks may have higher death rates than most vehicles because they are likely to be driven by higher-risk people. Compact pickups, in particular, attract young men — a group that is less likely to use seat belts properly, if at all, and is more likely to have accidents compared to older drivers.

For Families, Pickups Are a Safety Compromise
If you frequently travel with small children, a pickup truck might not be the wisest choice. For one thing, a child-safety seat can’t be properly installed in a regular-cab pickup or in any truck that lacks a full backseat. Tall pickup trucks are more prone to rollover crashes, and they are generally less stable on the road.

2004 Chevrolet S-10
Chevrolet’s S-10 is available only in crew-cab form for the 2004 model year.

The lack of space to hold all family members comfortably is another drawback. Only a crew-cab pickup with a full-size backseat comes close to providing pleasant, long-distance ride comfort for more than three occupants. It’s also likely that there won’t be ample room for additional passengers, such as your children’s friends, on local trips.

Pet Safety
The safest way to transport a pet is to use a harness to tether it in the rear cargo area of an SUV or a wagon. However, transporting pets — especially dogs — in the cargo bed of a pickup truck is an appealing option for many pet owners. When this is done, special care should be taken.

If a pet has to ride in the cargo area, placing it in a cap-covered bed and in a carrying cage will increase its safety. It’s not as safe to let a tethered, harnessed pet ride in an open cargo bed.

Proper care needs to be taken when transporting pets, especially when the vehicle is a pickup truck.

If you prefer transporting your pet inside the cab of your pickup truck, it’s best to secure your pet with a seat belt restraint and harness in the rear seat, if possible. If this isn’t an option, pets may be secured in the front passenger seat of a pickup truck, but be sure to turn off the passenger-side airbag.

Crash Tests Help Assess Safety
Each year, NHTSA crash tests selected vehicles by running them into a frontal barrier at 35 mph. NHTSA issues star ratings for all models tested, and the organization provides separate frontal crash-test ratings for the driver and front passenger. Side-impact tests also are conducted, and separate scores are listed for the front and rear occupants. All vehicles sold in the United States are required to pass a 30-mph frontal crash test, but only selected models are tested at the higher speed. Revised crash-test requirements have been approved but will not be effective in the 2004 model year.

No pickup truck has earned the top NHTSA ratings — five stars for both frontal and side impacts, which suggests maximum protection for all passengers sitting next to the vehicle’s doors. Like passenger cars, extended-cab and crew-cab trucks with a full backseat can be tested for side-impact protection in both the front and rear. Regular-cab models are rated only for front-occupant protection in side impacts.

2004 Nissan Frontier
The two-wheel-drive version of Nissan’s Frontier Crew Cab is one of the top-rated pickup trucks in NHTSA crash testing.

Three 2004 two-wheel-drive pickups — the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab, Nissan Frontier Crew Cab and Toyota Tacoma Double Cab — came close to achieving the top rating by receiving twin four-star ratings in frontal testing and dual five-star scores for side impacts. An extended-cab Tacoma, on the other hand, scored only three stars for the driver and four for the passenger in frontal testing, as well as three stars (with a high likelihood of pelvic injury) for front occupants in side-impact testing. The Dakota Club Cab got a five-star score for the front passenger but only three stars for the driver.

The Ford Ranger equipped with two-wheel drive got dual four-star scores in frontal testing and a five-star side-impact rating for front occupants. In extended-cab form, the Ranger got a four-star score for front occupants in side impacts, but the backseat was deemed too small for testing. The Toyota Tundra Access Cab earned dual four-star scores in frontal testing and a five-star rating for front occupants in a side impact. The two-wheel-drive Ford F-150 Heritage — the prior-generation F-150 version and not the newly redesigned F-150 model — got a four-star rating for the driver and five stars for the front passenger. In side-impact testing, it earned five stars for front occupants (and rear occupants, where applicable).

Though it hasn’t been evaluated in side impacts, the 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab with two-wheel drive did well in frontal-impact testing, receiving a four-star rating for the driver and a five-star score for the front passenger.

With either a regular or extended cab, the two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Silverado earned a four-star rating for the driver and a three-star score for the front passenger. Note that most of the trucks with top scores featured two-wheel drive; ratings for pickups with four-wheel drive could differ.

IIHS Crash-Test Results
2004 Ford F-150
2004 Ford F-150
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by the insurance industry, conducts its own tests by crashing vehicles into an offset barrier at 40 mph. Like NHTSA, the IIHS tests only selected vehicles; the results listed here are for current pickup trucks. Instead of a star rating, the IIHS rates the tested vehicles as Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor and awards Best Pick status to those models (in bold) that test well overall. Click a listed vehicle to read its full review.
Large Pickups Good Acceptable Marginal Poor
Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Dodge Ram 1500
Ford F-150
Ford F-150 Heritage
GMC Sierra 1500
Toyota Tundra (Video)
Small Pickups Good Acceptable Marginal Poor
Dodge Dakota
Ford Ranger
Mazda B-Series Trucks
Nissan Frontier
Toyota Tacoma

New Safety Features for 2004
On the whole, pickup trucks have fewer safety features than passenger cars. The availability of safety items hasn’t changed significantly for the 2004 model year. Four-wheel disc brakes have been added to the standard-equipment list of the redesigned Ford F-150, but the availability of antilock brakes is unchanged this year.

Side-impact airbags are standard in the new Nissan Titan, and side curtain-type airbags are optional. Vehicle Dynamic Control, Nissan’s electronic stability system, also is optional. Roof-rail side-impact airbags are optional in the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Previously, Dodge was the sole manufacturer to offer curtain-type airbags in any pickup model. For 2004, curtain airbags are an option in the Ram series.

Regular-cab pickups — like other vehicles that lack a backseat — include a deactivation switch for the front passenger-side airbag.

By Jim Flammang for cars.com;
Ford F-150 crash-test photo courtesy of the IIHS;
canine photo courtesy of Saab

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Posted on 1/28/04