When selecting a vehicle, many of us seek the safest of the bunch. But is it possible to pinpoint -- and therefore avoid -- some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road? And can a safe choice save you some car insurance bucks?
Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says that "in the past, there have been some real clunkers we have pointed out" in IIHS studies of vehicles with high death rates in crashes. Their most recent study, published in 2007, examined 2001 to 2004 models, finding that the most lethal deathtraps tended to fall into three vehicle categories.
"They are, by and large, either small cars, sport-utility vehicles with high rollover risks, or sporty cars that tend to get into more crashes," he says. "These were also vehicles that did not perform particularly well in crash tests." You can still spot these on the road today.
The five vehicles with the highest rates of driver death, as revealed by IIHS, were, in order:
- Chevrolet Blazer two-door SUV in the midsize category
- Acura RSX two-door small car
- Nissan 350Z mid-size sports car
- Kia Spectra hatchback four-door small car
- Pontiac Sunfire two-door small car.
Eleven others in the 2001-2004 model years registered more than 140 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years.
Significant improvement in car safety
Rader observes that vehicles are much safer today than they were even five years ago. "Vehicles have improved so much that death rates in crashes have dropped significantly in recent years," he says. "There are no new vehicles on the market that we would say absolutely avoid."
Much of the improvement can be seen in crash test results and translates into better protection for passengers involved in real-world crashes, Rader says. There have been additional gains in reducing the risk of rollovers in SUVs. "They gained benefits if they crashed into other vehicles, but because SUVs tended to roll over more frequently, the benefits of that size and weight were wiped out," he recalls.
In recent years, however, automakers have dramatically redesigned SUVs to be more carlike and thus less prone to rolling over. They now have lower centers of gravity and also benefit from electronic stability control, which research shows significantly reduces rollover risk.
While crash test results aren't a factor in car insurance rates, safety is ultimately reflected in claims made, which impacts premiums.
Getting a bad rap
IIHS's study of unsafe vehicles eliminated factors that might have skewed results. For instance, it recognized some vehicles are driven by a disproportionate number of risk-taking young males, while others are piloted by safety-minded middle-age females, and adjusted its study accordingly. "When you do that, you can zero in on the characteristics that make vehicles less safe," Rader explains.
And some vehicles fingered as unsafe in the general media got a bad rap, says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director for Irvine, Cal.-based KBB.com. He cites the Suzuki Samurai, which some in the late 1980s used as a poster child for highway danger.
"The Samurai was a vehicle that grew to cult status and was in the first wave of vehicles when four-wheeling went mainstream," he says. "People were getting into Samurais out of passenger cars, and expected them to handle like passenger cars. But they had a little higher center of gravity, a bit narrower track, people had to compensate and they didn't."
A few years later the Ford Explorer was stamped as unsafe by some after tires blew out on some of the vehicles. "A lot of [crashes] were occurring when families went on vacation, overloading the vehicles with everything they could think of," Nerad says. "All five of them get in the vehicle, they're often unbelted, it's hot and they drive at 75 miles an hour in 90-degree temperatures. In the overall scheme of Explorers, there weren't a large percentage of problems. But there were some [crashes], and some tragic ones, including rollovers."
Today, vehicles often have enough safety features and crash-worthiness to overcome many of the unwise driving choices made by motorists.