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As the average size profile of automobiles driven on U.S. roads increases, thanks to the growing popularity of trucks and SUVs, small cars remain the most dangerous to drive, dominating the list of vehicles with the highest fatality rates. Conversely, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that large SUVs — and in particular large luxury SUVs — dominated the list of lowest death rates.
IIHS crunched the numbers as part of its analysis, conducted roughly every three years, of driver death rates using data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System and registrations from IHS Markit. Researchers evaluated 2017 model-year vehicles or earlier carryover models, with fatalities that occurred from 2015 to 2018.
They found that 15 of the 20 models with the highest death rates were small and minicar, while almost half of the 20 vehicles with the lowest death rates were luxury SUVs. Large SUVs posted the lowest overall death rate of any segment with 15 fatalities per million registered vehicle years, while minicar had the highest, at 82.
The single worst performer? That would be the 2017 Ford Fiesta four-door, which returned an overall death rate of 141 fatalities per million registered vehicle years, compared to the average of 36 for all 2017 models. That model of Fiesta earned a marginal rating from IIHS in the driver-side small overlap crash test. Ford has since discontinued the Fiesta in the U.S. as part of a phase-out of its traditional passenger sedans and hatchbacks in our market.
“Smaller vehicles offer less protection for the driver in crashes, and their lighter mass means that they take the brunt of collisions with larger vehicles,” Joe Nolan, IIHS’s senior vice president of vehicle research, said in a release.
Not all small cars fared poorly in the analysis, however. The Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf electric hatchback posted death rates of 0 and 5 per million registered vehicle years, and the same rate at 10 billion miles traveled, a new measurement for IIHS. The overall death rate for small cars was 61 per million vehicle years and 45 per 10 billion miles traveled.
Switching to the lowest death rates, luxury SUVs notched nine of the 20 top spots, with two luxury midsize cars — the Lexus CT 200h hybrid and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan — also making appearances. IIHS noted that owners tend to drive luxury and sports cars fewer miles per year than other models, and they also come equipped with advanced safety technologies that don’t feature on less expensive models.
Rounding out the lowest death rate list were three large SUVs (the Chevrolet Suburban 1500, GMC Yukon XL 1500 and Mitsubishi Outlander), the Subaru Outback and the Honda Odyssey minivan. Seven models had death rates of zero.
Overall, the average death rate for all 2017 models increased to 36, from 30 for 2014 models and 28 for 2011 models. That corresponds with rising traffic fatalities during the four-year span covered by the study.