At least 30,000 people die in motor vehicle accidents each year in the US, but that figure is far below the peak 50,000-plus rate last reached in 1980. That number comes as there are even more cars on the road today than ever before. However, newer vehicles are better built and are helping to save lives. That’s one of the conclusions the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has reached in a vehicle safety study released on Thursday.
Driver Death Rates Fall
Especially noteworthy is the sharp decline in driver deaths for people who operate late model vehicles. Specifically, the IIHS found that such fatalities declined by one-third in three years, with nine 2011 model year vehicles boasting a driver death rate of zero.
David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer, says, “We know from our vehicle ratings program that crash test performance has been getting steadily better. These latest death rates provide new confirmation that real-world outcomes are improving, too.”
Certainly, safer roads and stepped up law enforcement have also contributed to the decline in deaths. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, peak motor vehicle deaths of 54,589 people were reported in 1972 compared with 33,561 in 2012, the last year that this data is available.
The IIHS credited “improved vehicle designs and safety technology” with contributing to the decline in fatalities. Specifically, advanced structural designs, additional safety fixtures, and a changing blend of vehicle types, were the primary reasons for the death rate to decline from 1993 through 2006. Those sources were still important in more recent years, but model-specific modifications have increasingly played a more significant role in the fatality reduction rate of late.
Nine “Zero Death” Models
Just eight years ago, there wasn’t a single passenger vehicle with a driver death rate of zero. The nine 2011 model year vehicles comprise a mix of luxury and mainstream vehicles. One minivan, the Honda Odyssey, made the list. Just two cars, the all-wheel drive Audi A4 and Subaru Legacy, were also included. The remaining six models are utility vehicles: the front-wheel drive Kia Sorento, the four-wheel drive Toyota Sequoia and all-wheel drive SUVs that include the Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Volvo XC90.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Kia Rio sedan, Nissan Versa sedan and Hyundai Accent sedan had the most driver fatalities. Data from earlier model year vehicles going back to 2008 was also included, particularly if the affected vehicles were not significantly modified prior to 2011.
The Institute has been publishing make and model death rates occasionally since 1989. However, that data is restricted to the driver only as passenger specific deaths are uncertain. The IIHS culls fatality counts from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System with registration data procured from R.L. Polk & Co.
IIHS Top Safety Pick Awards
The transition to safer vehicles follows several initiatives by manufacturers and policy makers adopted over the years. Indeed, the IIHS has played no small part in advancing vehicle safety by strengthening its own safety testing criteria. Currently, the Institute has two safety awards — Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ — that are based on five types of crash tests, including a new small overlap front test. To achieve the highest rating, vehicles must score well on the crash tests and have a high rating for front crash prevention.
In 2009, the Governors Highway Safety Association adopted a 10-point plan for reauthorizing the Federal Highway Safety Program. That initiative is to work toward zero deaths, chiefly by strengthening current programs, especially highway safety. New York City and Sweden also have campaigns to reduce vehicle deaths to zero according to the IIHS.
A further reduction in traffic deaths will proceed, although completely eliminating that possibility may be decades away. But that isn’t stopping policy makers from advocating for autonomous driving and improved road design. Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to design safer vehicles as the IIHS raises the crash testing bar in a bid to help reduce injuries and deaths.