IIHS: Late-Model SUVs Have Lowest Driver Death Rate; Small Cars Have the Highest

Remember the old warning of SUVs rolling over and killing you? Thanks to the spread of electronic stability systems, the opposite is now true. Late-model SUVs have the lowest driver death rates among all cars, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In fact, the rollover death rate for model-year 2011 vehicles is 75 percent lower than it was among 2004 model-year cars.

Related: Study: Half of Young Driver Fatalities Were in Vehicles at Least 11 Years Old

IIHS analyzed driver death rates for 2011 models and 2008-2010 versions of the same cars (not a previous generation) from the 2009 through 2012 calendar year. During the observed period, two models accounted for zero driver deaths: the Honda Odyssey minivan and the Subaru Legacy sedan. Certain versions of seven other models had zero driver deaths, too: the front-wheel-drive Kia Sorento and all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive versions of the Audi A4, Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota Sequoia and Volvo XC90. Other versions of those models either had higher death rates or too small a sample size, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told us, and the study was too far along by the time 2013 fatality data arrived late last year.

In total, five of the nine zero-death cars were SUVs. By contrast, eight of the 10 cars with the highest driver death rates were small cars:

  • Kia Rio (149 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years)
  • Nissan Versa sedan (130)
  • Hyundai Accent, four-door versions (120)
  • Chevrolet Aveo (99)
  • Hyundai Accent two-door hatchback (86)
  • Chevrolet Camaro coupe (80)
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500 crew cab, four-wheel drive (79)
  • Honda Civic (76)
  • Nissan Versa hatchback (71)
  • Ford Focus (70)

A "registered vehicle year" equals one car registered for one year, and Rader said IIHS only scrutinized driver deaths because it's impossible to determine a passenger-death rate. (Every car has one driver but an unknown number of passengers, and you can't establish a rate without knowing how many passengers could have been killed.) Again, these are 2011 models with 2008-2010 models from the same generation included in certain cases.

It's worth noting that in 2011, the cars with the highest death rates were a motley crew of bargain-bin subcompacts with patchy crash-test ratings and missing safety equipment. The Rio, Accent and Aveo lacked electronic stability systems, which weren't required until the 2012 model year. A stability system was optional, not standard, on the 2011 Versa, and the Aveo lacked side curtain airbags.

Younger, less-experienced drivers often drive such cars, but Rader said IIHS tried to correct for demographics, so the numbers show that smaller vehicles afford less protection.

"We can't dial out driver factors entirely, but we have adjusted for age and gender to try and hone in on the vehicle characteristics," he said. "If, say, a vehicle had an overrepresentation of young men as the registered owner, we adjusted for that to even out — to adjust for the fact that that could skew the results. The same [was done] for a vehicle where the owners were overrepresented with middle-aged women, who tend to be safer drivers."

There were just 28 driver deaths overall per 1 million registered vehicle years between the 2009 and 2012 calendar years. Three years earlier that rate was 48 driver deaths. Credit improved crashworthiness and safety features, including electronic stability systems, which went from being standard in just 30 percent of cars for the 2005 model year to 91 percent for the 2010 model year.

But how much of the shift comes from seat-belt usage, safer driving habits and changing traffic laws? IIHS studies determined that had vehicles remained unchanged between 1985 and 2011, driver deaths would have fallen on their own from about 175 deaths per million registered passenger vehicle years to about 100 because of all those other factors. Instead, they've dropped to fewer than 75.

Put another way, if we drove cars with the same crashworthiness and safety features of the 1985 fleet, IIHS says 7,700 more drivers would be killed in 2012 alone. That's a huge increase over the 33,782 highway fatalities in 2012, and it doesn't include an untold number of additional passenger deaths.

The No. 1 safety feature in any car remains the driver. But this study shows that the car matters a lot, too.

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