We all know that larger, heavier vehicles are always safer, except that’s not what the real-world data indicate.
In the real world, two of the largest, heaviest passenger vehicles on the road, the Chevy Suburban 2WD, and the Ford Expedition 2WD have driver death rates higher than the compact Chevy Equinox and Ford Escape. In fact, very large SUVs, on average, have a higher death rate than large SUVs, midsize SUVs or compact SUVs. So why isn’t the larger, heavier vehicle safer?
Pickup trucks also have some interesting facts debunking the myth that larger is better. The Chevy Silverado 1500 Crew 4WD has a driver death rate about four times as high as the midsize Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The Ford F-150 Super Duty has about double the death rate of the Tacoma. These are all best-sellers we are comparing, not unusual or unique “ringers.” Overall, middle-sized pickups are the safest of that vehicle shape, not the very large pickups.
There are no tricks here. We know that the number of vehicles on the road and the miles driven need to be normalized for these facts to make any sense. We are using the the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Data Loss Institute (HDLI) methodology. The group’s driver death rates are expressed as the number of driver deaths per million registered vehicle years. (A registered vehicle year is one vehicle registered for one year.)
The death rate is basically per mile driven, so sales numbers are factored out. The group does adjust the numbers slightly for gender because females die in crashes much less often than do males, but we have chosen examples above where the raw and adjusted numbers tell the same tale. These numbers are not estimates from laboratory crash tests. These are the actual deaths per mile driven recorded from 2008 through 2011, the most recent period for which data is available.
Demographics matter in death rates. However, why would a large pickup be more likely to have a dangerous driver than a Tacoma? Toyota markets the Tacoma with commercials showing Tacoma owners jumping motorcycles while wearing costume bunny heads and surfing sofas down sand dunes. The Silverado is marketed to guys at work. And why would a pricey Suburban costing upwards of $70K be owned by a person who takes more risks than a compact crossover affordable to pretty much anyone?
Size is hard to cheat. If one crashes a tiny car, say a Smart Fortwo, into another larger car, say a Mercedes C-Class, the Smart car is going to get the worst of it. For grins and giggles, and to prove the point, IIHS did crash them into one another. Yup, the Smart Car got smushed and went flying. However, is that the end of the story? Certainly not. Single car accidents account for a lot of deaths. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), reported that in 2014 (most recent data available), 56% of crash deaths were single vehicle deaths.
Are big heavy vehicles safer in all the ways we find to crash? No. In fact, the larger, taller ones tip over a lot more often than the lower, lighter ones. Rollover deaths account for 11% of vehicle deaths for car passengers. SUV deaths were 27% rollovers. This is an important equalizer in the vehicle size and safety consideration. Not crashing is a big part of not dying in a vehicle crash, and vehicles that find themselves upside down are not safe vehicles.
Feel free to dig into the numbers yourself looking for single examples of smaller cars with shockingly high death rates. They’re in there, but micro cars and subcompacts barely sell in America anymore. On average, large cars have a higher death rate than midsize cars solidly debunking the direct correlation that bigger is better. The safest vehicles overall are not the behemoth SUVs and ginormous pickups, but rather very large cars and midsize SUVs. There are outliers in this group to consider, though. The very large Mercury Grand Marquis sedan has a raw driver death rating of 75. The compact Toyota Corolla’s raw driver death rate is just 30.
If you are still thinking demographics is all that matters in car crashes, and these numbers aren’t telling the truth of the matter, consider that the average age of a Tacoma owner is 49. Here’s another demographic reality check. The Mazda Miata, long called a “chick car” has a male ownership percentage of 66%. Most of what you think you know about mainstream car ownership demographics is likely wrong.
Size matters in crashes between two vehicles. However, that is just one type of crash. Taken in the broader context, the shape of a car, its level of modern safety content, and its ability to stay upright levels the playing field considerably. You can view the real world death rate for every car from about 2008 through about 2011 at the IIHS summary page.