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IIHS safest and the most lethal late-model cars

IIHS death watch is good news for SUVs—mostly

Published: January 30, 2015 09:00 AM

What would you suppose was the safer car, a Mini Cooper or a Chevrolet Suburban? Turns out it’s the Cooper. That’s one of the more surprising findings in a new Driver Death Rate report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  

This IIHS study calculated driver death rates specifically for 2011 models, using government crash-fatality data for the 2009 through 2012 calendar years. Also included were substantially identical models to the 2011s, where they existed, from prior model years.  

The average for the whole fleet came out at 28 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years. (A registered vehicle year is one car driven for one year.)

Here are some key findings:

  • While most of what the IIHS calls mini cars did very badly, the Mini Cooper was an exception. Its death rate of 21 was way better than the rear-wheel-drive version of the Chevrolet Suburban, which had 60 deaths. Thankfully, the four-wheel-drive Suburban had a more acceptable 17.
  • SUVs, which in general used to have a worrisome propensity to roll over, with fatal results, are now the safest vehicle type. Their overall death rate of 18 is better than that of the perennially safe minivan (23) and substantially better than midsized sedans (29). The advent of electronic stability control seems to have made a dramatic difference for many vehicles but especially for sport-utilities.
  • The worst car was the tiny four-door Kia Rio, with a death rate of 149.
  • Not all Kias did badly. The front-wheel drive Sorento SUV was one of nine vehicles tied for safest in the survey, racking up zero deaths in the study period.
  • Others with a perfect record were the Audi A4 and Subaru Legacy sedans; the Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota Sequoia, and Volvo XC90 SUVs; and the Honda Odyssey minivan.
  • Besides the ill-fated Kia Rio, two other cars had a death rate over 100: the Hyundai Accent four-door and the Nissan Versa sedan.
  • One of the worst records went to the two-door version of the wildly popular Honda Civic, with a death rate of 76.
  • The IIHS has conducted similar death-rate studies a half dozen times since the late 1980s, but the 2015 study’s overall findings are by far the most encouraging yet.
  • The chances of dying in a crash in a late-model car have fallen by more than a third in the past three years.
  • Eight years ago, when the IIHS looked at death rates in 2001-2004 models during calendar years 2002 through 2005, the overall death rate was 79 and no vehicles had zero deaths.
  • If vehicles had not improved in structure and safety gear since 1985, the year 2012 alone would have seen 7,700 more driver deaths than it did, the IIHS reckons.

The researchers adjusted the data to minimize, so far as possible, such demographic factors as the age and sex of the driver. While all such confounding factors couldn’t be isolated, the large model-to-model differences seem to have more to do with the vehicles’ design and equipment than on who was driving them. (See our guide to the models with advanced safety features.)

While focusing on 2011 models means that the findings aren’t necessarily relevant to most 2015 models on sale now, the long-term trend of ever-improving safety technology and structural design bodes well for the newest cars. And used-car buyers may do well to take this death-rate history into account when shopping for their next set of wheels.

Gordon Hard


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