By 2009, those numbers had dropped by a considerable amount, with newer SUVs in the same weight class now responsible for just 16 deaths per million registered vehicle years. Newer pickup trucks declined as well, and were responsible for approximately 28 deaths per million registered vehicle years. For comparison, cars and minivans weighing between 3,000 and 3,499 pounds were responsible for 17 deaths, making them on par with SUVs in multi-vehicle accidents.
What’s behind the big improvements in vehicle safety? For cars and minivans, the answer is primarily side curtain airbags, which offer occupant head protection in the event of a crash, and stronger vehicle structures which are less likely to deform in the event of an accident.
SUVs have been made safer by aligning their energy-absorbing structures with those of cars and minivans. In simpler terms, early SUVs would over-ride energy-absorbing structures of smaller vehicles, causing greater impact damage. Thanks to the efforts of automakers, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that’s no longer the case, and the effects are clearly seen in the improved safety numbers.
Other advances in vehicle safety have helped as well, including the adoption of electronic stability control and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. As for the higher incidence of pickup truck crash deaths, the IIHS points out that pickup trucks may lack electronic stability control and often carry loads or cargo, adding to their gross vehicle weight.
Which brings up another finding of the IIHS study: while overall vehicle safety is improving, heavier vehicles continue to fare better in crashes than lighter ones. Safety features aside, there’s no getting around the laws of physics.