Hoping to stay safe on the road? You might want to avoid certain cars.
For example, the Nissan 350Z has a death rate that's about double that of the average sports car.
But it's not for the reasons you might think. In this case, says Russ Rader, communications director for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an organization that represents the interests of the insurance industry, the 350Z is part of a group of vehicles that tends to be driven by younger, less experienced or riskier drivers, and stands out for having high death rates, through no particular fault of the car.
"When they are in crashes," he adds, "they're particularly serious ones."
This illustrates a key point: Simply looking at the historical death rates for one particular model might not give much insight into the relative danger, or safety, of driving that vehicle. Furthermore, the most recent available federal data, interpreted by make and model by the IIHS, covers 2001 to 2004 model years in calendar years 2002 to 2005. Many models have had significant changes in safety equipment or complete redesigns since then.
The consensus among several safety experts we asked is that the best way to predict how dangerous or safe a new vehicle will be comes from looking at the way it's configured, particularly with respect to several important factors — side-impact protection, stability control and rollover risk — that together span a wide range in real-world safety.
That's what we did. Topping the list of the least safe: the Buick Rendezvous, the Ford Ranger/Mazda B-Series, the Nissan Frontier, the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner and the Toyota Yaris.
Among the various crash tests the IIHS performs on new vehicles, according to Rader, they see the widest range of results in those with side-impact and rear whiplash protection.
"What makes a vehicle unsafe today is a lack of side-impact protection," he says. "Whiplash is not a life-threatening injury but head injuries [from a side impact] are commonly life-threatening."
Side-curtain airbags have been shown to greatly increase the chances of surviving a classic "T-bone" side-impact accident, such as when the other vehicle runs a stoplight, and depending on the design, they can also increase the chances of surviving a rollover. Side-curtain bags are mandated for all 2009 vehicles, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that these alone will reduce fatal side-impact head injuries by 45 percent, saving up to 1,000 lives per year.
"Side airbags designed to protect your head are crucial, because a head injury is the most common fatal injury in a crash," says Rader. "It's the difference between life and death."
Along with side airbags, a vehicle also needs a well-built side structure to withstand a strong blow from vehicles of varying heights, says Rader.
Which leads to another major point: "Size and weight are very important aspects of safety," he says. "The laws of physics always apply in a crash. That means that people in smaller and lighter vehicles are always at a disadvantage in crashes with other vehicles."
In single-vehicle crashes, the weight advantage isn't as pronounced, but the statistics still point in favor of larger, if not heavier vehicles, he says.
However, John Linkov, managing editor of Consumer Reports, says that smaller and lighter vehicles aren't necessarily more dangerous. In many cases, they may offer handling and maneuverability advantages to help avoid accidents.
"A more nimble, better-handling vehicle," he says, "is likely going to be easier to control in an emergency and help the driver avoid the dangerous situation."
While generally heavier SUVs and pickups are at an advantage in multi-vehicle accidents, they've been shown to be at quite a disadvantage in single-vehicle accidents (such as when the driver falls asleep, or loses control swerving around a deer), which comprise 43 percent of fatal accidents.
In this type of accident, SUVs and pickups have more than double the chance of rolling over, according to NHTSA data. This risk relates closely to overall federal fatality data, showing that SUVs and pickups generally have a higher fatality rate than cars of a similar weight.
Electronic stability control systems, which smartly apply the brakes on one or more of the wheels as best to avoid loss of vehicle control in an extreme maneuver, have been offered for more than a decade in some luxury and high-performance vehicles, but the technology has been trickling down to most mainline brands over the past several model years.
NHTSA has called it the most significant development since the seatbelt, and the federal government has mandated electronic stability control, but not until the 2012 model year. NHTSA estimates that the stability-control mandate will prevent up to 9,600 fatalities and 238,000 injuries annually, at an average cost of $111 per vehicle in addition to the cost of anti-lock brakes, which most vehicles already offer as standard equipment or as an option.
"Electronic stability control is one of those rare safety features that's having a dramatic effect on saving lives," says Rader. "Stability control alone can reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56 percent. And it can reduce fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 80 percent for SUVs, 77 percent for passenger cars."
Even though stability control was only offered in some of the more expensive sport-utility vehicles a few years ago, Rader says that its impact is already easily seen in the Institute's yearly list of vehicles with the lowest death rates. Rader said that in the past, only a few of them were SUVs, but now they make up nearly half of the list.
Pickups are another surprisingly unsafe group of vehicles. Based on fatality-rate data, they're by far the most dangerous, says Michael Dulberger, president of the safety advocacy group Informed for Life.
"Pickups as a class have the highest rate of fatality and serious injury," he says, "and they have a very high rollover risk."
Rader agrees. "Pickups have a rollover problem," he says. "They have a high center of gravity and a high propensity to roll over." And making matters worse, "They're the laggards in electronic-stability control," he says.
Last year, only one pickup model offered electronic stability control, according to Rader, while this year it's standard on 8 percent of models and optional on 20 percent. By comparison, 87 percent of sport-utility vehicles now have standard stability control, according to the Institute.
Linkov agrees that some pickups pose the most danger to inexperienced drivers. "What we're seeing is that young people in places where pickups are a de facto choice are at an especially strong risk, with their propensity to roll over," he says.
Any vehicle can be especially unsafe if it's used in a way it's not designed for, such as if a high-clearance pickup is used primarily empty on curvy, hilly roads, according to Linkov.
"Combine that with a poorly trained driver," he says, "and it's dangerous."