Every three years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comes out with a report looking at driver death rates for different car models. The most recent looks at 2008-2011 models. León Markovitz made this chart of the results:
Now, if you have any of these vehicles, there's no need to panic — just drive safely. IIHS is mainly trying to study what car designs and types are more durable than others, and what's improving over time.
"Minicars and small cars dominate the worst list," the report notes — with the Kia Rio topping the charts. "That's not surprising, since these vehicles can't protect as well as larger ones. Death rates by vehicle type and size show that the smallest vehicles typically have the highest [driver] death rates."
(Note that this study is looking at driver death rates. Other studies have found that SUVs and larger vehicles are more dangerous overall — though they're better at protecting their own drivers. Smaller cars also get better fuel economy, so there's a trade-off.)
IIHS adjusts for age and gender, so that these stats aren't as skewed by, say, certain models being popular with young male drivers. They also tried to adjust for the effects of the recession, which curtailed driving around America. That helps give some sense of which models appear to be safer by design.
Cars are actually getting much, much safer overall
The report is mostly filled with good news. For one, IIHS notes, newer cars appear to be safer than previous models overall: "Among 2011 models, there were 28 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years through the 2012 calendar year, down from 48 for 2008 models through 2009."
Case in point: IIHS identified nine different model 2011 vehicles with driver death rates of zero — including the Kia Sorento midsize SUV and the Subaru Legacy sedan. There weren't any such vehicles like that three years ago.
So what's happening? The report notes that "improved structural designs, the addition of safety features and an evolving mix of vehicle types" have helped reduce the driver death rate in newer vehicles. In fact, in a separate study, IIHS found that changes in vehicle design were a major reason for the drop in vehicle deaths between 1993 and 2006:
The yellow line above shows what researchers would've expected the death rate to be if they only took into account things like driver behavior or vehicle age. The blue line shows what the rate actually was — they conclude the difference is largely due to vehicle changes.
Had vehicles not gotten safer over time, the IIHS researchers argued, the fatality rate would have ticked up a bit during the 1990s — as speed limits increased and the gains from higher seatbelt use flattened out. But car design improved, thanks in part to crash-test ratings, and the death rate dropped instead. Likewise, the recession would have curbed accidents in the 2000s regardless, but improved safety features helped it drop even faster.
One recent example of better design: A decade ago, SUVs had some of the highest driver fatality rates, due to their proclivity for rolling over. But automakers adopted electronic stability control technology that seems to have curtailed this risk significantly — the rollover death rate for 2011 models (5 per million) is less than a quarter what it was for 2004 models.
The researchers say this is all excellent news, although they do note that there are other ways besides better car design to reduce fatalities that don't get nearly as much attention: "Lower speed limits, stronger safety belt laws and wider use of automated enforcement are just a few examples of policies that could have reduced the death toll even further."
It's worth noting that even though traffic fatalities in the United States have been declining since the 1970s, there are still an absurdly high number — with 33,561 deaths in 2012. That rate (11 deaths per 100,000) is much, much higher than the fatality rate in other developed countries (in Japan it's just 4.3 deaths per 100,000). Transportation experts have put forward all sorts of additional ideas to bring this number down further — like safer roads or curbing sprawl or even self-driving cars.
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