The chances of dying in a car crash, if you’re behind the wheel of a newer vehicle, have dropped dramatically over the past several years.
In just three years, studying a corresponding four-year window of late-model used vehicles, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that the driver death rate dropped 42 percent—from 48 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years for 2008 models through calendar-year 2009 down to 28 deaths for the equivalent in 2011 models through the 2012 calendar year.
That’s the good news. But as part of annual calculations made by the IIHS, looking at driver death rates by model, the organization also found that a vast gap persists between vehicles with a record for driver protection and those with much higher risk.
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A shocking gap in risk of life and limb?
2011 Hyundai AccentEnlarge Photo
These results do allow us to draw some generalizations about which vehicles—and types of vehicles—are less likely to allow occupant death or injury, yet it’s important not to put too much weight on these results. That’s because they don’t take into account a very important factor: driver profile.
Although the IIHS does adjust for age and gender—filtering out the affects of risk-taking young male drivers, for instance—they don’t adjust for other factores, like the habits and driving style of who’s behind the wheel, as well as the demographics of where they are—the climate and topography, and the type of roadways. All has a lot to do with relative safety of the driver and occupants.
That said, the dramatic difference in relative risk poses some questions: For instance, the Audi A4 and Nissan Versa are both sedans, sized within a foot of each other, if you go by total length. Both have a full roster of airbags, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes. Yet it’s fair to say that the Versa has had hundreds of times more deaths, after adjusting for many factors.
The Versa was a particularly low achiever for safety in 2011, and it appears that its two-star federal overall rating for safety was indeed a cause for worry.
More frequent redesigns, new active safety
As for the industry’s pronounced improvement as a whole, the organization points to shorter redesign cycles for vehicles for some of that improvement, as well as, during this period in particular, the weak economy. “This means that fatality rates could be expected to rise again when the economy improves unless better traffic safety policies are put in place,” said the organization in a release accompanying the announcement.
A decade ago, the list of highest-risk vehicles, by driver death rate, was dominated by SUVs; although since then, the fitment of electronic stability control and other features have closed that gap and brought crossovers, in many cases, above sedans for relative safety.
And of course consumers have driven some of these safety improvements—by crossing vehicles that underperform in safety off their list.
First here are the ten (from the 2011 model year) with the highest rate of driver death:
Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Browse the full IIHS list of driver death rates for more information, or click on to see the nine 2011 model-year vehicles that have shown to have the lowest rate of driver death, along with what we said about their safety in 2011 and what our takeaway is today: