Data Show SUVs and Pickups Are Causing Fewer Fatalities

Late-model pickups and SUVs pose a lesser threat of death and serious injury to car and minivan drivers than those built just a decade ago, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

That is because of increased crash protection in cars and minivans and design improvements for pickups and SUVs that make them less likely to override smaller vehicles in a crash, impacting driver and passenger compartments, researchers found.

“Whether you’re in an SUV or just sharing the road with one, recent improvements to these vehicles are making you safer,” Joe Noland, co-author of the study and IIHS chief administrative officer, said in a statement.

According to IIHS, SUVs are no longer more likely than cars or minivans of the same weight to be involved in crashes that kill occupants of those vehicles, and the risk posed by pickups—while still greater than that of other vehicles of similar weight—is lower than it was a decade ago.

IIHS found that death rates for occupants of cars and minivans that were up to 4 years old, weighed between 3,000 and 3,500 lbs and crashed with SUVs of similar weight fell by nearly two-thirds, from 44 deaths per million in 2000-01 to 16 deaths per million in 2008-09. Cars and minivans in the same weight category were involved in accidents that killed occupants of similar vehicles at the higher rate of 17 per million in 2008-09, according to the study.

The safety improvements are the result of a combined effort by federal safety officials, researchers and automakers, according to IIHS, a nonprofit organization that is funded by insurance companies and studies ways to decrease vehicular death, injury and property damage.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) called for research into lessening the damage from crashes between “mismatched” vehicles after noting a major increase in the number of SUVs and pickups on the road in recent years and statistics showing those vehicles were far more likely than cars or minivans of similar weight to be involved in accidents that killed car and minivan occupants.

The research led to improvements including side airbags that offer more head protection and stronger structures in cars and minivans, along with newer designs of SUVs and pickups that make their front ends line up better with those of cars, allowing both vehicles to manage the energy from a crash and diverting it away from occupant compartments.

“By working together, the automakers got life-saving changes done quickly,” Nolan said. “The new designs have made a big difference on the road.”

Researchers found that, in both 2000-01 and 2008-09, the death rate usually rose along with vehicle weight, which will always be a major factor in crash outcomes. But in the earlier period, SUVs were more deadly to car and minivan occupants than were other vehicles of similar weight, and pickups were deadlier still.

The death rate for car and minivan occupants—referred to as “crash partner deaths”—involved in collisions with all other types of vehicles fell between the two periods studied. Researchers attributed the decrease to improved occupant protection, decreased travel as a result of high gas prices and a depressed economy and the increased availability of electronic stability control (ESC) systems that are meant to reduce the likelihood of a rollover or other crash.

But crash partner death rates for all types of vehicles were markedly closer in accidents involving more recently made vehicles, with newer SUVs no more likely to cause fatalities than other vehicles.

Pickups still fatally injured people in cars and minivans at a higher rate, particularly in frontal crashes, but researchers said that was because larger, heavier vehicles are bound to do more damage than smaller, more lightweight vehicles. In addition, the IIHS’ Nolan said that pickup manufacturers were slower than other automakers to implement design changes and to incorporate ESC.

“Also, pickups often carry loads, so the trucks in these crashes could be a good deal heavier than their curb weights,” Nolan said.

Federal safety officials gave automakers a September 2009 deadline for making design changes, but many vehicles incorporated changes well before then, according to IIHS.

In addition to reducing roadway risks for drivers and passengers, vehicle safety improvements such as those studied by IIHS can sometimes help consumers find lower premiums from top rated auto insurance companies. That’s because coverage providers may consider vehicles that have been proven to protect motorists and have comparatively low injury and damage claims costs a lesser risk to insure.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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