Small Cars Account For Highest Driver Death Rates Than Large SUVs, According To IIHS Study

Small cars accounted for 15 of the 20 models with the highest fatalities in 2017

The 2017 Ford Fiesta. One of IIHS’s notably deadly cars. Image from Ford Media Site.

When it comes to car accidents, the general wisdom seems to be that driving a larger car means you a greater chance of coming out of an accident unscathed. As technology and safety features improve, though, how accurate is that perception now? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently analyzed vehicles involved in fatal accidents from 2014 to 2018, determining that small cars and minicars (i.e. compacts and subcompacts) continue to hold the title for most deadly. 

The cars with the lowest death rate were large SUVs, as they offered more protection compared to smaller cars. The IIHS states that large SUVs only accounted for 15 fatalities per million, while smaller cars had 82 per million. From model year 2014 to 2017, the Ford Fiesta was the car with the most deaths throughout the duration of their analysis. 

The IIHS was careful to consider two critical factors that play into driver deaths. What gave the biggest hints were the speed the driver was going before the accident occurred and number of miles Americans tend to drive per day. 

Small cars have higher driver deaths, but there’s another factor

Through analysis of miles driven per vehicle class, the IIHS found that smaller cars had the most miles driven out of all other classes. Pickup trucks, larger SUVs, luxury and sport cars had fewer miles on the odometer. This revelation suggests that smaller cars have higher driver death rates because they’re driven more often overall than other vehicle classes. However, when considering mileage and how that ties into death rates, larger SUVs and sports cars weren’t as safe as originally perceived. 

The safest vehicles analyzed were luxury sedans and SUVs. It’s unsurprising, as even the IIHS noted that many luxury cars, even as far back as 2014 model years, had advanced safety features that cheaper cars did not. The next safest were larger sedans and SUVs, with minivans close behind them. 

On the other hand, two small cars defied the “small cars are more deadly” data results: the Nissan Leaf and the Mark 7 Volkswagen Golf. The two together only have five per million deaths, despite their size. That is a surprising result given that the previous generation of VW Golf was one of the worst performing models of 2014. Before the Golf’s 2015 redesign, it suffered a fatality rate of 63 deaths per million vehicle years. IIHS suggests that these two cars’ saving grace was their safety features, and not how much metal was between the driver and whatever they crashed into. 

The IIHS was also careful to include a very valuable piece of advice for anyone in the market for a car. When it comes to safety concern, pay more attention to the safety features offered. As they’ve shown in cars of all sizes, a larger car (on its own) isn’t always a safer car.