Small Car Models Rank Among Safest Vehicles

March 28, 2002

Media Contact(s):

Wendy Koch, 202-507-4753, Senior Director, Marketing & Communications

WASHINGTON, D.C.A new report on auto safety released today finds that the average sport utility vehicle or pickup truck is more dangerous than most cars on the road, when the risk posed to other drivers is taken into account. The report also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, many small cars have lower fatality rates among their own drivers than SUVs or pickups. SUVs are the fastest growing segment of new vehicles, today comprising 21% of that market, up from 6% just 13 years ago.

The study, "An Analysis of Traffic Deaths by Vehicle Type and Model" (available here), finds small and mid-size car models such as the Jetta, Accord, and Camry have driver fatality rates as low or lower than those of any of the major SUV or pickup models. Essentially all popular car models score better than any popular SUV or truck model on deaths to drivers in other vehicles. "Driving a big vehicle and driving a safe vehicle are two different things," said Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which released the analysis. "This report clearly illustrates the importance of design in determining a vehicle's safety."

The report was researched and written by physicist Marc Ross at the University of Michigan and Tom Wenzel, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their analysis is based on "driver death rates," a measure of risk developed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) comparing driver fatalities to the number of vehicles on the road. The fatality data come from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Safety studies typically group vehicles in broad categories of weight averages. Our findings show how misleading attempts to attribute safety to vehicle weight can be," said Ross. "Even without correction for behavioral factors that may work against small vehicles, several of the most popular small cars have outstanding real-world safety records."

The analysis is the first to examine fatalities among drivers of vehicles that crash with a given vehicle model. These fatality rates, together with the fatality rate among drivers of the subject vehicle model, yield a "combined risk," which provides the means to evaluate a model's contribution to overall danger on the highway. The combined risk of SUVs is significantly higher than that of most popular cars on the market today.

The report finds that of all major vehicle groups, minivans have the lowest fatality rates among their drivers, while pickups have the highest. "Minivans generally are built on car rather than pickup truck platforms, which may reduce the risk to their drivers and certainly reduces the risk to other drivers," noted Wenzel. "Minivans may also appear to be less risky because they tend to be driven more carefully than other vehicle types."

Other key findings of this report include:

  • The safest small cars, the Volkswagen Jetta and Honda Civic, are as safe or safer to their drivers than the average SUV. On the other hand, the Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Escort, and Dodge Neon are roughly twice as dangerous to their drivers as the Jetta and Civic.
  • The Toyota Avalon poses the smallest combined risk out of all of the "most popular" car models considered.
  • Driver age does not account for the mediocre safety record of SUVs. A smaller fraction of fatalities in SUVs are young males and elderly drivers - two risky driver groups - than in the four major classes of cars.
  • In contrast, the safest vehicle type for their drivers, minivans, have the lowest fraction of young male drivers, while the riskiest, sports cars, have the highest.

"Risk" here means annual fatalities per million vehicles sold of the given model. Statistical uncertainties in risks presented here are on the order of 20%.