There is a significant difference in the driver fatality rate among vehicles, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A recent IIHS report on driver deaths, in vehicle crashes for the 2001-2004 model years or calendar years 2002-2005, reveals that the average death rate was 79 per million registered vehicle years. Some models had twice that fatality rate, while others had significantly lower rates. Overall, the death rate has continued to improve over time and is about 30-percent less than it was 10 years ago.

Care should be taken when evaluating this data because there are driver factors (such as demographics and region) that might greatly affect the fatality rates per model. We believe models that appeal to a more careful driver tend to have a lower fatality rate than those that attract a more risk-prone driver.

Each model's average death rate per million registered vehicle years represents the reported number of driver deaths divided by the model's number of registered years. For example, two vehicles each registered for 12 months would equal two vehicle years.

Chevrolet models were at the top of the best and worst lists. The Chevrolet Astro minivan had the lowest death rate, at seven per million registered vehicle years. The highest frequency reported is for the two-door, two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer, at 232 per million. See the full list of best and worst vehicles.

VEHICLE SIZE AND WEIGHT ARE FACTORS

Results from the IIHS study show that vehicle weight and size factor into the death rate. Generally, the smallest, lightest vehicles have the highest fatality rates in crashes. None of the 15 vehicles on the lowest-fatality list are small, while 11 of 16 on the highest list are small.

Midsized and very large luxury vehicles have the lowest death rates among vehicle types. The data shows that heavy cars are generally safer. But in some cases, bigger isn't necessarily safer.

  • The driver death rate is higher in midsized sports cars than small ones. Counter to what might be expected, sports cars as a whole have a lower risk of fatality than two-door coupes, which have rates that range from 103 to 137 per million registered vehicle years.
  • The only "very large" SUV listed, the Ford Excursion, has a rate of 115 per million registered vehicle years, more than any "large" SUV.
  • Many midsized SUVs, particularly in 2WD configuration, have higher fatality rates than the worst-performing large SUV.
  • Across all categories, the rates reflect the vehicle's design, as well as how it is used.

Some 4WD vehicles did better than their 2WD counterparts, which might reflect the lower center of gravity of some 4WD vehicles. That is the case with midsized and large SUVs, as well as small and large pickups. Generally, the results for SUV safety shows that design changes, safety features, and new technologies in the last few years have helped to make them safer. As a group, midsized SUVs have a lower fatality rate than midsized sedans. But there is clear variation in crashworthiness from model to model, as evidenced by the real-world data and laboratory-style testing.

The IIHS notes that there is a correlation between accidents and testing, as there is between vehicle size and weight and fatality rates. For example, the 2001 Ford F-150 was one of the worst performers in the IIHS frontal crash tests. It was redesigned in 2004; the crash test results improved dramatically and the death rate dropped by half. (For IIHS crash-test results, see our crash-test videos and full safety ratings in the model overview pages, available from the search pulldowns on the main Cars page.)

BENEFITS OF ESC

The IIHS report shows the effectiveness of vehicles that have electronic stability control (ESC). In particular, SUVs are becoming safer with the availability of ESC, and six models equipped with it are included on the lowest death rates list. All but three out of 15 vehicles on that list have available or standard ESC. In contrast, of the 16 vehicles with the highest death rate, none have standard ESC and it is optional on only the Nissan 350Z. A separate study revealed that ESC has the potential to save 10,000 lives per year and can significantly reduce the risk of fatal crashes, including rollovers.

Consumer Reports has long recommended adding ESC to vehicles. With each model year, more and more manufacturers are equipping their vehicles with this important safety technology either as an option or standard feature. And, ESC will be standard on all new vehicles under 10,000 pounds by 2012.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Vehicle crashworthiness can vary significantly, as can performance during an accident-avoidance maneuver and severe braking. This report indicates the vehicles that have fared best in the real world in protecting the driver. But the driver's behavior also plays a role in vehicular safety with certain models.

We recommend researching your next vehicle with attention to safety, including reviewing the Consumer Reports crash-protection and accident-avoidance ratings. Not all vehicles are created equal, but the one constant among your rides is you. Choose well and drive responsibly.

Lowest rates of driver death
Fewer than 20 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years for 2001-2004 model year.
Make & ModelRates per million
Chevrolet Astro7
Infiniti G3511
BMW 7 Series11
Toyota 4Runner13
Audi A4 / S4 quattro14
Mercedes Benz E-Class14
Toyota Highlander14
Mercedes-Benz M-Class14
Toyota Sienna17
Honda Odyssey17
Lexus ES33018
Lexus RX33018
Toyota Sequoia18
Honda Pilot19
BMW X519
Highest rates of driver death
More than 140 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years for 2001-2004 model year.
Make & ModelRates per million
Chevrolet Blazer (2 door, 2WD)232
Acura RSX202
Nissan 350Z193
Kia Spectra (hatchback)191
Pontiac Sunfire179
Kia Rio175
Chevrolet Cavalier (2 door)171
Mitsubishi Eclipse169
Dodge Neon161
Pontiac GrandAm (2 door)160
Chevrolet Cavalier (4 door)150
Ford Mustang150

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