Death Rates In Cars Are Rising But It's Complicated

Illustration for article titled Death Rates In Cars Are Rising But It's Complicated
Photo: Ford

There’s been a lot of car safety advances more widely deployed in the last decade—think things like automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and even better headlights–but driver death rates have actually gone up in that time, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It’s a little complicated.


The IIHS study looks at 2014-2017 model year cars, finding that, in general, small cars fared worse than big cars in terms of driver death rate. The IIHS publishes its death rate infrequently; the last was in 2017, and 2015 before that, both studying older models. Both of those had a top line that was better than this year’s.

Part of that is simply that people are simply putting more miles on the road as the economy strengthened throughout the last decade.

From Automotive News:

For 2017 models, IIHS reported 36 deaths per million registration years, compared with 30 for 2014 models and 28 for 2011 models. A registered vehicle year is one vehicle registered for one year.

“This rise is consistent with the increased rate of U.S. traffic fatalities that accompanied an improved economy following the Great Recession,” Young said.

“It’s important to note that the factors behind the low rate of deaths in the 2015 report — improved vehicle design and safety technology — haven’t changed but aren’t enough by themselves to continue the downward trajectory,” he explained.

Which makes sense, but what really caught my eye was the data about small cars.

From IIHS:

Small cars and minicars accounted for 15 of the 20 models with the highest death rates for model year 2017, while nearly half of the 20 models with the lowest death rates were luxury SUVs.


We can infer a few things that here. The first (and most obvious) is that small cars’ size is going against them in a world that is packed with more and more big SUVs and trucks, which was less of an issue even 10 years ago. The second is that new safety technology tends to appear first in luxury cars and SUVs. The third is that the cars with the highest death rates might just be shittily-made cars?

I mean, here is IIHS’s list of the top 16 vehicles in terms of death rate:

Illustration for article titled Death Rates In Cars Are Rising But It's Complicated
Illustration for article titled Death Rates In Cars Are Rising But It's Complicated

It’s not exactly shocking that a Ford Fiesta is the far and away leader. It’s also not terribly surprising that Chevy, Nissan, and Fiat didn’t fare so well. Nor is it surprising that people who drive Mustangs die at high rate. More than anything, though, this list is making me rethink all of the supposed progress Hyundai and Kia made in the last couple decades, since each have multiple models that couldn’t protect its driver better than a Mitsubishi Mirage.


And think of all the automakers that make small cars that aren’t on this list, namely Honda and Toyota, whose cars from model years 2014-2017 are apparently safer to drive than a Chevy Trax from the same period. Finally, consider that the Volkswagen Golf had zero deaths per million registered vehicle years, alongside six other cars, including behemoths like the GMC Yukon XL 1500, the Infiniti QX60, and the Porsche Cayenne.

Obviously, in a game of chicken, I would prefer to be driving a Yukon rather than a Honda Fit, but this also seems to suggest that considering size exclusively also has its limits.


If nothing else the study did give us the gift of some poor Ford spokesperson having to defend itself against a car it doesn’t even sell in the U.S. anymore.

“Safety is a fundamental priority in the design of our vehicles. Ford is committed to advancing safety technologies and crash performance to help customers stay safe on the road,” a Ford spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Automotive News. “We look forward to learning what we can from the study to help do that, even as we continue investing in and developing key new technologies.”


You can look up stats on almost every make and model here.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.


Along with Martin, Dutch Gunderson, Lana and Sally Decker

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics...

When did “deaths per million registration years” become the metric for measuring safety? As far as I can remember, the metric has always been “deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled” as it accounts for vehicles in operation, not just vehicles registered.