It’s more than a feeling: bigger, heavier vehicles are safer for passengers than smaller cars when it comes to accident fatalities. When considering the purchase of a new or used car, many look to data on safety ratings, gas mileage, and of course, the impact on their pocketbooks. Larger vehicles are safer but more expensive and worse on gas mileage for the most part, which is common sense. Car manufacturers have been trying to level the playing field to stay competitive in today’s markets.

Car safety has improved over the years. We know this because accident fatalities have decreased. Safety standards have improved over the last ten years, and new small cars are safer than ever before. One game changer in car safety is the mandatory Electronic Stability Control (ESC) feature in all new vehicles made in 2012 and beyond. The technology helps drivers maintain control of their vehicles in the event of a skid in slippery conditions or dangerous curves. Also, airbags are more common and not just in the steering wheel. Air bags are now in the doors and passenger side of the dash. Roofs are stronger on SUVs and trucks which are known rollover hazards. Automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning systems are becoming common features on many cars, which work to prevent accidents. The upshot of all these safety enhancements combined is that cars are safer than ever before, even though there are a lot of them on the roads. 

The data show the result of these safety improvements, culled from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A whopping 56% decrease in car crash deaths has resulted for the mini-car category in the decade between 2005 to 2015. Car crash deaths in small cars decreased by 57%, midsize cars by 46%, large sedans dropped to 28% , 71 percent for large SUVs, 60 percent for small SUVs, 78 percent for small trucks and 63 percent for large trucks. Yes, 78% for small trucks – a giant drop attributed to the aforementioned ESC feature. 

But yes, newer, big and heavy vehicles are still safer than new small cars when the two meet in frontal and rear car crashes. Bigger vehicles have bigger crush zones, so they are harder on small cars. Longer hoods and protruding trunks crush can smaller cars in collisions. 

No one can get away from the simple laws of physics. In a 2015 IIHS study, the heavier vehicle had more inertia than the lighter one, which meant it would push the smaller car backwards on impact. More force is exerted on the smaller cars from the larger vehicles. This is shown in fatality data as well, which isn’t surprising, but what is a shock is the significant difference: the lowest 2015 fatality rate by vehicle type was for very large SUVs at 13 deaths per million registered vehicles. The highest was for mini cars at 64 deaths per million registered vehicles.

It sounds like a rather macabre business, but there are folks who look at crash test scores as a way to measure the driver’s chance of surviving a crash. To be fair, vehicles are only compared within a class size, so when you read the safety ratings, they’re not saying that a tiny car with a 5 star rating is going to be safer than a very large vehicle and its rating, even if lower than five. So, remember that when you are in the market for a new or used car. Not everyone is going to be driving an SUV. Your best bet is to look for the best safety rated vehicle in the class that best suits your finances and needs.

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