Last month, the Alabama House of Representatives voted to become the latest state to clamp down on texting while driving. The passed bill would fine drivers $25 for their first infraction, $50 for the second and $75 for each subsequent violation. It now moves to the state Senate for debate.
The penalties might not be stiff enough to make a dent in the 8,000 crashes that occur each day nationwide — 80 percent of which are caused by distracted driving, according to AAA. The cost extends well beyond the need to repair fender-benders; The National Safety Council, an Illinois-based organization aimed at lobbying for and supporting safety standards, says the average economic cost per traffic fatality in 2007, the latest year on record, was $1.1 million. It's $61,600 for a disabling injury (the figures include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, motor vehicle damage and employers' uninsured costs).
But poor driving is only partly to blame.
The way a car handles itself during a crash determines much about the severity of the occupants' injuries. Some cars hold up better than others: Tiny cars and low-level sedans are especially at risk, according to crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Bigger cars, because of their mass, generally fare better in tests — but may be more likely to roll.
This helps explain why the Chevrolet Aveo and Chrysler PT Cruiser, both inexpensive, smaller cars, have the worst crash-test ratings in their class — they each received "marginal" test-results for side- and rear-impacts. They join the Cadillac STS and Mercury Grand Marquis as some of the most dangerous vehicles of 2010.
Our list of the most dangerous cars compiled using IIHS crash-test results on 2010 model-year vehicles. After each crash, test dummies are checked for trauma in 28 body regions for front crashes and 37 regions for side crashes, with each region earning a rating based on specific parameters for trauma. A "poor" rating means severe and possibly fatal trauma happened to drivers and/or passengers during the crash, while a "good" rating means little to no trauma occurred.
We awarded values for each overall front, side and rear ratings, with more points awarded for better results ("good" received 4 points, "acceptable" received 3 points, etc.), for a maximum possible total of 12 points. The cars on our list scored the lowest number of total points in their segment. We broke ties by docking points according to occupant trauma ratings within each category (front, side and rear impacts). Except in the case of mini cars, we did not evaluate roof strength, as not all 2010 vehicles have been tested for it yet by the IIHS.
It's crucial to note that all of the cars on our list more than meet federal safety standards, and they're all much safer than anything on the road even 15 years ago. "Automakers have really taken over the lead in safety," says Russ Rader, an IIHS spokesman, because consumers prioritize it when they make a purchase.
Furthermore, some cars on our list, while earning the lowest scores in their class, still scored as many as 10 points out of the 12, such as the Mitsubishi Galant and Nissan's Titan truck. These vehicles make our list because they score only slightly lower in otherwise overwhelmingly safe classes.
It's also true that the IIHS tests are more severe than those administered by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. IIHS's front test is a 40-mile-an-hour front-offset collision into an unmoving barrier. Its side crash is a T-bone collision set at 30 miles an hour. NHTSA tests head-on collisions by a concrete barrier striking at 35 mph (researchers there also evaluate fewer sections on the dummy's head, chest and legs). Its side impacts are set using a 1.5-ton trolley set at 38 mph.
David Zuby, senior vice president of vehicle research at IIHS, says his organization's more-stringent standards are truer to reality than the government measures. He also says the Jeep Wrangler two-door and four-door on our list are somewhat special cases, since their removable doors hurt their side-impact test scores compared to their competitors. They received "poor" and "marginal" side-impact ratings, respectively.
Even though we separated the cars on our list by segment, there's no getting around physics: In a crash, vehicles with more mass will fare better than smaller vehicles. A 5,500-pound Chevrolet Tahoe will beat a 1,000-pound Nissan Micra every time.
"Our recommendation would be for people to look at midsized cars," Zuby says. "There are a number of midsize cars that if you buy the less powerful engine of the options available, you get gas mileage that is comparable to many of the smaller cars. And by being midsize as opposed to small, you have the size advantage, and there are a lot of midsize cars with good crash-test ratings. Crossovers and wagons count as well."
Something else to notice: Part of the reason why no luxury cars — minus the Cadillac STS, which fared poorly in rear-collision tests — appear on our list is because automakers often put the newest, most expensive safety options in their high-end line first, to test driver acceptance. Then, as awareness increases and production volumes rise, manufacturers install the same features in mainline vehicles, with less cost attached.
"It's basic evolution," says Doug Scott, senior vice president of Southfield, Mich.-based research firm GFK Automotive. "The more you see the non-luxury-brands touting safety, I think you're going to get broader pressures by manufactures to try to find breakthroughs that aren't terribly expensive."
Until then, foregoing texting makes the most difference.
Automakers with models that made our list of the most dangerous vehicles for 2010 were given the opportunity to respond. Their comments appear below.
The Cadillac STS meets or exceeds government safety standards. STS, like all our vehicles, undergoes more than 100 safety tests to balance safety performance before, during, and thanks to OnStar automatic crash notification, after a crash.
All GM vehicles, including the Chevrolet Aveo, meet or exceed government safety standards. GM conducts well over 100 safety tests on every model to balance safety performance before, during, and thanks to OnStar automatic crash notification, after a crash.
Chrysler Group also has four vehicles in IIHS' 2010 Top Safety Pick List. Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Avenger, Jeep Patriot and Dodge Journey.
The 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser and Jeep Wrangler are equipped with standard advanced multi-stage front driver and passenger air bags. The PT Cruiser is equipped with standard side air bags offering additional thorax protection. The Jeep Wrangler features standard Electronic Stability Control (ESC).
The Chrysler PT Cruiser received four out of four stars in NHTSAs frontal crash test and 4 out of five stars in NHTSA side crash tests. The Jeep Wrangler also received five out of five stars in the government's frontal crash test.
Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles meet or exceed all applicable Federal Safety standards.
No single test can determine a vehicle's overall safety performance. Results from IIHS and other third-party test programs are reviewed by our engineers as part of our effort to continuously improve the overall performance of our vehicles.
Our priority continues to be designing vehicles that perform safely for our customers and their families in everyday driving conditions.
All Ford Motor Company vehicles offer a high level of safety. The Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis have earned a Five Star Crash rating from the U.S. government, its highest possible crashworthiness rating, as well as Five Star rollover ratings. These vehicles are primarily sold to fleet customers, who continue to rely on the car's proven track record of safe, dependable service.
Mitsubishi Motors declined to comment.
Nissan Motor Company did not respond to requests for comment.