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Death rate still worse in smaller and lighter vehicles, study shows

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Alex Law
As interesting, informative and even scary as the specific average death rates for all vehicles can be, the smart consumer is better off sticking to the generalities of the insurance industry's most recent study of automotive safety.

First off, it's important to bear in mind that these result relate to vehicles from the 1999 to 2002 model years, so that if you're looking at a model that was new or extensively revised since then, the results may not apply at all. You can also be confident that the newer version of a vehicle will be safer than the one in this study.

The full study with all of the death rates and more detailed information can be found at

It must also be pointed out that, while the broad strokes data about the importance of vehicle weight and size (the bigger they are, they safer they are) support the indisputable realities of physics, the individual highlights tend to ignore the importance of psycho-dynamics.

How else to explain such obvious anomalies as the disparity in the death rate between the Chevrolet Tracker and Toyota RAV4, as just one example, if you don't consider how their drivers think and behave? In size and weight and mechanical design, these are very similar vehicles, yet the RAV4 rates an 18 and the Tracker a 183.

The Toyota probably scores a lot better because a lot of its owners are middle-aged women looking for something reliable and practical, while the Chevrolet scores worse because it was so popular with young people looking to live the go-anywhere lifestyle all SUV advertising promotes as being theirs for the taking.

Indeed, a quick look at the top-rated vehicles (from Mercedes, Toyota, Mercedes, Nissan, Honda) suggests their buyers are older and more careful, while the brands in the low-rated vehicles (Chevrolet, Kia, Pontiac, Mazda and Mitsubishi) suggest a younger crowd. But even if that's just an educated guess, it's as good as anything offered up by the insurance companies, who surely prefer older and more careful buyers as an economic rule of thumb.

No one in his or her right mind should think that they'll be 10 times safer in a RAV4 than they will in a Tracker if they drive exactly the same way in either vehicle. If the driver psycho-graphics were the same for both vehicles, the death rates would be similar as well. Driver behavior is still the most important safety technology in every vehicle.

What's most important for the consumer worried about the safety of her family are what Adrian Lund, the chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), calls the ''general patterns of death rates,'' many of which have been consistent since the IIHS ''began computing the rates by vehicle make and model in the late 1980s.''

First off, there has been ''a pattern of improvement. In the late 1980s the overall driver death rate was higher than 100. The latest overall rate was 87.'' This suggests that all vehicles are safer than they were 20 years ago, thanks to increased seatbelt use, the growth of airbag availability, and the increased use of daytime running lights, anti-lock brakes, and other technologies.

Then, as now, says Lund, the ''important characteristics of vehicles that influence their driver death rates are type, body style, size, and weight. Within virtually every group of vehicles, the smaller and lighter models have the higher rates.''

Among cars, for example, Lund and the IIHS report that the smallest two-door models had the highest death rate. at 190 per million vehicle years. This rate is more than twice as high as the average for all vehicles included in the study.

Midsize sports cars also had a high rate at 133 driver deaths per million vehicle years.

''This was higher than for either small or mini sports cars,'' says Lund, ''so this type of vehicle was an exception to the general rule that bigger means lower death rates.''
Alex Law
Alex Law
Automotive expert