Car accidents will not stop from happening in the foreseeable future. But, after a year of thousands upon thousands of recalls following bad car accidents, good news comes out of the automotive industry. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently issued a report that found the chances of dying while riding in a recent model vehicle have fallen by more than 1/3 in the past three (3) years. Among 2011 models, a record nine (9) vehicles have driver death rates of zero. However, there is a large gap between the safest and riskiest models of vehicles. In fact, there are three (3) cars that have death rates exceeding 100 per million registered vehicle years.
The data comes out after two (2) major safety crises enveloped the U.S. auto industry in 2014 — faulty GM ignition-switches and potentially lethal Takata airbag inflators. The increased emphasis on safety prompted the industry to recall an all-time record 60.5 million U.S. vehicles last year, nearly twice the previous record.
Improved vehicle designs and safety technology are attributed as the reason for the continuing decline in death risk. In a related study, researchers estimated how much of the decline was due to design changes in the vehicles during 1985-2012. They found that the vehicle changes, including improved structural designs, the addition of safety features and an evolving mix of vehicle types, were the main source of declining risk from 1993 through 2006. These changes continued to contribute to later declines as well, though other factors such as the weak economy also appear to have played a role.
There were 7,700 fewer driver deaths in 2012 as compared to 1985. The latest death rates by make and model confirm the rapid pace of improvement. Among 2011 models, there were 28 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years through the 2012 calendar year, down from 48 for 2008-2009 models.
“This is a huge improvement in just three years, even considering the economy’s influence,” says David Zuby, IIHS Executive Vice President and Chief Research Officer. “We know from our vehicle ratings program that crash test performance has been getting steadily better. These latest death rates provide new confirmation that real-world outcomes are improving, too.”
Although the numbers reflect 2011 models, data from earlier model-year vehicles as far back as 2008 are included if the vehicles weren’t substantially redesigned before 2011. Including older, equivalent vehicles increases the exposure and thus the accuracy of the results. To be included, a vehicle must have had at least 100,000 registered vehicle years of exposure during 2009-12 or at least 20 deaths.
GETTING TO ZERO DEATHS RESULTING FROM CAR ACCIDENTS
The list of vehicles with the lowest death rates illustrates just how much vehicles have improved. Eight years ago, there were no models with driver death rates of zero. Now there are nine. These vehicles – which include several luxury models but also some less expensive ones such as the Kia Sorento midsize SUV and the Subaru Legacy sedan – had no driver deaths during the calendar years studied. The presence of so many zeros among the latest death rates comes at a time when more and more highway safety advocates are setting their sights on a goal of zero deaths in motor vehicle crashes.
One striking thing about the group of zero-death vehicles – aside from the sheer number – is that two-thirds of them are SUVs. Ten years ago, SUVs had some of the highest rates, due to their propensity to roll over. However, the spread of electronic stability control (ESC) has dramatically lessened the risk of rollover crashes in these and all vehicles. The rollover death rate of 5 per million registered vehicle years for 2011 models is less than a quarter of what it was for 2004 models. With ESC dramatically reducing rollover risk, the inherent advantages offered by SUVs’ greater size, weight and height emerge more clearly. Today’s SUVs have the lowest driver death rate of any vehicle type.
SMALL VEHICLES, HIGH DEATH RATES
The vehicle with the highest death rate among the 2011 models is the Kia Rio, a minicar, with 149 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years. It’s one of only three vehicles with death rates above 100.Minicars and small cars dominate the worst list. 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 death rates, and, with some exceptions, death rates tend to go down as size goes up.
Since 2006, improvements in vehicle design have continued to play a big role in declining fatality risk, though the risk would have fallen somewhat even without vehicle changes, the study shows. A small increase in safety belt use and other improvements in driver behavior may have contributed to this reduced risk by calendar year, but the biggest factor was probably the weak economy. This means that fatality rates could be expected to rise again when the economy improves unless better traffic safety policies are put in place.