If you own a small car like a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, odds are you’ve been intimidated by looming SUVs like the Ford Expedition. There is good reason to be wary of these large, heavy vehicles. In a report released Thursday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that SUV drivers are less likely to die in a crash than drivers of passenger cars and pickup trucks.
The IIHS study evaluates National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test data from 2006 to 2009 for vehicles from the 2005 to 2008 model years. From 2006 to 2009, the overall death rate was 48 for every 1 million vehicles. Death rates vary widely by vehicle type. Minivans fare best in crashes, and have a driver death rate of 25. In its class, the Toyota Sienna has the lowest death rate of zero. Six other vehicles also have a death rate of zero, including the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Ford Edge, Nissan Armada, Land Rover LR3 and Land Rover Range Rover Sport. SUVs have a slightly higher death rate of 28. In the IIHS’s 2007 study, SUVs had a driver death rate of 65. Those figures were even higher for SUVs from the 1999 to 2002 model years. The IIHS says SUVs’ average death rate “was 82 per million, nearly as high as the 88 per million for cars. In the new analysis, the death rate for SUVs is half that of cars.”
In comparison, pickup trucks have a driver death rate of 52, more than double that of minivans. Cars have the highest death rate of 56, but the smaller the car, the higher the overall death rate is for that vehicle class. Compared to larger four-door models like the Chrysler 300, which have a driver death rate of 55, small four-door cars like the Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent have an overall death rate of 82.
The IIHS says that the earlier SUVs were not as safe as the ones available now. “The rollover risk in SUVs used to outweigh their size/weight advantage, but that’s no longer the case, thanks to ESC,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the IIHS. Electronic stability control is an important feature for all cars because it helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle during fast turns or swerves. The IIHS requires all of its Top Safety Picks to have ESC as a standard safety feature, and now, the government requires all vehicles to have standard ESC beginning with the 2012 model year.
In addition to being larger and weighing more, SUVs have an advantage in crashes because they are taller. “When cars and SUVs of similar weight are compared,” says the IIHS, “the SUVs have lower death rates.”
When looking at the IIHS study, it’s important to remember that the overall rates apply to vehicle classes as a whole, not individual models. That means as you shop, don’t cross a car off your list because the class does poorly. For example, midsize sedans have an overall driver death rate of 51, but some vehicles within the class perform very well. The Honda Accord, for example, receives an individual score of 19, while the Chevrolet Malibu has a driver death rate of 99, the highest in its category. The Accord’s score is higher than the Ford Edge’s driver death rate of zero, but according to the Institute, it is one of the safest midsize sedans available.
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