Does Small Mean Unsafe?

As gas prices continue to rise, the size of American vehicles is starting to shrink. But does a shift to smaller cars require a compromise on safety?

According to data published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), drivers of subcompact and compact cars are more likely to be killed in a multiple-vehicle accident, than those driving large cars, pickup trucks or SUVs. In terms of safety, size does matter. Larger vehicles are able to absorb more crash energy than smaller ones.

Russ Rader, IIHS Spokesman told, “The gap will remain until we figure out how to repeal the laws of physics. They dictate that all other things being equal, people in small, lightweight vehicles are always at a disadvantage in crashes with heavier vehicles.”

The data from IIHS suggest that consumers driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars may be compromising some level of passenger safety. But the playing field is more level than it may first appear. Many small cars offer safety equipment that was not available until recently. This includes a full compliment of airbags, traction and stability control, and stronger occupant safety cage construction. Automakers, most notably Honda, have made features like rigid body more widely available—showing that occupants of smaller vehicles now have significantly higher survival rates in crash tests with larger vehicles. The most recent data from IIHS goes back to 2006 and earlier—prior to the very latest safety advancements.

Rader suggests that mid-size cars with efficient four-cylinder engines can offer the best of both worlds. Vehicles like the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Nissan Altima Hybrid, as well as the Toyota Prius, provide fuel economy that matches or exceeds compacts, while still being large enough to contend with an SUV in an accident. “The bottom line is that you don’t have to buy a tank to be safe on the road,” said Rader.

The disadvantage for small vehicles is only when considering multiple-vehicle accidents. According to IIHS data, pickups and SUVs are proportionally more likely than cars to be in fatal single-vehicle accidents, especially rollovers.

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  • Anonymous
  • Paul Rivers

    The IIHS also has a chart showing that the fuel economy rating of a small car vs. is subcompact is the same, so there’s really no safety OR environmental reason to get a car smaller than a “small” car:

  • ex-EV1 driver

    This is exactly why we need electric drive. It allows good fuel economy in reasonable sized vehicles. European micro-cars are not more efficient, they’re just less car. The reduction is in the safety part, not the passenger container.
    The electric drivetrain in a BEV or Hybrid offsets in addition to being much more efficient than any Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and transmission (manual, CVT, or Automatic), offsets many of the losses incurred by heavier vehicles through regenerative braking. Much of the extra energy needed to accelerate a heavy vehicle to a particular speed is recovered when braking. Today’s wimpy hybrids barely take advantage of this but, with technology development and consumer demand (or understanding), this should improve.

  • sean

    Can somebody tell me with the regenerative braking, does Prius (and other hybrids) have a shorter stop distance? If yes, that should be taken into account as an active safety factor.

  • B

    True smaller, lighter cars may be a disadvantage to heavier cars thats why we need LESS HEAVY CARS/TRUCKS/SUVS on the road!!! If we all drove lighter smaller vehicles impacts would proportionally less destructive and you would need a 4ft steel crumple zone to stop the impact.

  • VaPrius

    “people in small, lightweight vehicles are always at a disadvantage in crashes with heavier vehicles” True. But also true is that the heavier vehicles are not any safer to be in, in a crash with another heavier vehicle. Welcome to the SUV arms race. They never should have been allowed on the road. That is why the insurance rates on small car were raised when SUVs became popular. The insurance companies stated it was because small car drivers are now at greater risk.

  • VaPrius

    Hybrids tend to stop in shorter distances mainly because of their slightly lighter weight. The regen braking slows you down very little compared to brake pads. However, as a Prius driver, I have avoided many accidents due to the fact that the car stops on a dime.

    The near miss accidents were due to other drivers, not me.

  • Anonymous

    A careful study of the data reveals that cars that weigh at least 2900 lbs are very safe, such as the Prius, and a car the weighs at least 3600 lbs like the Camry Hybrid is as safe as any vehicle you can buy as far as size is concerned. Buying vehicles that weigh more than 3600 is simply a waste of gas with absolutely no gain in passenger safety.

  • mdensch

    Regarding braking:

    I own a Ford Escape Hybrid and am surprised at how effectively the regen braking can slow down the vehicle. However . . .

    The regen is activated at the beginning of the pedal travel and the hydraulic system comes into play as you push deeper into the pedal. In a panic stop you would be engaging the hydraulic system completely, the regen wouldn’t have much effect. This can be said, though, a hybrid should be able to go much longer between brake jobs since much of the braking is done by the regen system and not the brake pads.

    Also, Vaprius said that hybrids would stop shorter because of their lighter weight. Actually, a hybrid weighs more than the exact same car would as a non-hybrid due to the additional weight of the batteries, power cables, electric motors, etc. The Prius employs a number of weight-saving features, but if it were available in non-hybrid form it would weigh less.

  • VaPrius

    mdensch is right. I was referring to a heavier vehicle in general. The Prius is heavier than other vehicles of similar size. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Anonymous

    The most frequent accidents I’ve witnessed or seen just after the accident have been SUVs on their roofs. I’ve seen two in the past few months where SUVs were just sitting inexplicably upside-down in the middle of the interstate. I saw another this winter near my home on a small, barely-two-lane road that was covered with snow with an SUV sitting on its top for no apparent reason. I was hugging the right lane in a driving rain recently while SUV after SUV blasted past me like I was sitting still, only to see one do a 180 in the middle of the interstate. Luckily, he got turned around again before getting hit. Just tonight I read of an SUV in my town that crossed the median and killed a woman in a VW Beetle. My point is that the SUV threat is not just a matter of size difference; it’s that they are basically unstable vehicles driven by the near-insane. The most threatening driving situation is to have a mixture of vehicle sizes with large differences in speed (SUV drivers tend to be the fastest, most aggressive drivers on the road). Throw erratic driving into the mix, and the poor guy tooling along in a small car is a fatality waiting to happen. I say this having always driven small cars and my family (wife and two driving sons) also driving small cars, so I tend to worry about them.

  • sean


    If Prius is heavier than other vehicles of same size, it’s not much.
    I’ve just checked the kerb weight of Prius against the current Corolla (same brand, similar size), sold in Australia.
    Prius: 1295 – 1325 Kg
    Corolla (Hatch): 1310 – 1330 Kg
    Corolla (Sedan): 1285 – 1320 Kg.

    Corolla (Hatch) is even heavier.

    Prius has extra weight for batteries but less weight for engine (smaller), I think.

  • mdensch

    Sean: You are comparing apples to oranges. My comments stated that if you could compare the exact same vehicle in hybrid form vs. non-hybrid, the hybrid would weigh more because of the weight of its additional components.

    Anonymous: I hear ya. I live in the snow belt, too, and it’s quite true that you see more SUV’s in trouble in bad weather than other kinds of vehicles. Speed is obviously the problem and you hit the nail squarely when you noted that large differences in speeds account for many of the crashes on the highways. We can’t blame all of that on SUV owners, of course. You see plenty of BMW, Corvette, Porsche, etc, drivers racing along at a good 10 to 20 mph over the limit, also.

    If we’re going to get serious about conserving resources, the first, and EASIEST step, is to slow down.

  • Boom Boom

    MDensch has got it right. We talk about safety in smaller cars and manual transmissions (on another article) and everything else, but the easiest, fastest way to improve safety AND fuel economy is to slow down.

    Smaller cars are less safe than larger cars, but just about everything sold in 2006 is safer than any car made in the 80s and much of the 90s. Safety is relative, and it is always improving in automobiles.

  • Anonymous

    Vehicles that weigh 2900 lbs are very safe, and vehicles that weigh 3600 are as safe as any vehicle no matter the weight.

    Thus, according the this study a Toyota buyer would be wise to avoid the Yaris at 2335 lbs, the Corrola at 2595 lbs, but should feel safe in a Prius at 2932 lbs, and very safe in a Camry Hybrid at 3680 lbs. And if they want to improve the safety of the Yaris and Corrola drivers, they should avoid buying a Highlander at 4508 lbs and absolutely avoid the Sequoia at 5680 lbs.

  • Paul Rivers

    “Vehicles that weigh 2900 lbs are very safe, and vehicles that weigh 3600 are as safe as any vehicle no matter the weight.”

    And the source for this

  • Boom Boom

    I have to agree with Paul. Putting some arbitrary “2900 lbs” limit on safety has no basis in fact. Car design, safety features, etc. are all going to play a part in the safety as well as the gross weight of the vehicle. 2900 lbs vehicles with 14 air bags and crumple zones will be safer than a 3600 lbs vehicle with no airbags.

    The safety issue with SUVs isn’t their weight, it is their center of gravity. Roll overs are the most dangerous kind of accident out there. And their safety vs. other cars comes at the expense of the other vehicle’s passengers since they’re higher and hit a non-SUV above the bumper and safety designed into the frame.

    We should make cars/trucks etc. safer, but not at the expense of everyone else on the road. The mid-size cars mentioned in the article do this.

  • Paul Rivers

    Actually, I’m really curious – is there a link to an article that I missed where they say that 2900 lbs is very safe and 3600 pounds are as safe as any vehicle? I don’t see it. 🙁

  • Collin Burnell

    Nissan Altima 4cyl, CVT… 3189lbs
    Nissan Altima V6, CVT… 3358 – 3479lbs
    Nissan Altima Hybrid, CVT… 3448lbs

    Hmmm, I thought the Hybrid would be heavier.

  • Anonymous

    Click on the link provided by Paul in post #2, then click on the study on the right, then evaluate the graph, deaths per…

  • mdensch

    Collin Burnell:

    Well, let’s see . . . according to YOUR figures the Altima 4cyl with CVT is 3189 lbs and the hybrid (with the very same 2.5 liter engine and CVT) weighs in at 3448 lbs. The hybrid weighs 259 lbs more than the very same car in gasoline-only form.

    Isn’t that what I said???

  • Anonymous

    I own a Prius, and I recently saw where two brothers in the Chicago area modified their Prius and were getting 100 miles to the gallon. I’m curious as to how I can make contact with them to learn more?

  • Boom Boom

    If you look at the “dots” on the graph (referenced in Paul’s post and by Anon above) it doesn’t support any sort of an arbitrary cut off. The bigger the car, the safer the car. Across the board, for all types. Each person has to make their own decision about how much gas they’re willing to sacrifice for safety. (This goes for hybrids too. Bigger hybrid=safer hybrid=less efficient hybrid.)

    The interesting point is how a 3500 lb car is as safe as a 5000 lb SUV. Another point that the graph shows, but the article doesn’t talke about is the fact that even a 2,000 lb “minicar” is safer than a 4,000 lbs pick-up truck. Pick-ups are the least safe vehicle on the road. (I’ll take a Fit over a Tacoma, based on that report…)

  • Paul Rivers

    “The interesting point is how a 3500 lb car is as safe as a 5000 lb SUV. Another point that the graph shows, but the article doesn’t talke about is the fact that even a 2,000 lb “minicar” is safer than a 4,000 lbs pick-up truck. Pick-ups are the least safe vehicle on the road. (I’ll take a Fit over a Tacoma, based on that report…)”

    I want to say that that was an insightful comment, so much so that I’m writing to say thanks for adding useful thoughts to the discussion!

    However, I do have to point out that oddly enough, the “cars” line is actually “cars and minivans”. So it may be that a 3500lb minivan is as safe as a 5000lb SUV.

  • Boom Boom

    Absolutely, Paul. I always found it amusing that soccer moms would trade in a minivan for an SUV saying it was safer when all the accident data pointed in the other direction.

  • 92 Civic VX

    Come on $5 a gallon. SUVs will be like the dinosaurs – gone. Been driving Civics since the early 70s. I’d say small car drivers are more alert drivers. A safety issue overlooked. How many SUV owners have you seen yakking on their cell phones. Try talking and shifting at the same time – doesn’t work. Pull over and talk.

  • Anonymous

    What do you mean the graph does not support that a 2900 car is very safe, safer than all pickups, and safer than about 1/2 of all vehicles sold.

    And a 3600 Camry is safer than all pickups and all SUV’s, so it is safer than any other vehicle type. The cut-offs match the best SUV’s and best pickups, so they are not arbitrary. . If everyone understood that sedans above 2900 are very safe, and sedans above 3600 are the safest vehicles on the road, safer than all pickups and SUV’s it might encourage folks to actually improve safety.

  • Anonymouser

    The graph suggests that heavier vehicles are safer, but adding weight to vehicles is not the yellow brick road to Safetyville. How’s this for flawed logic: I wore a green jacket while driving to work today, and I did not get in an accident, therefore wearing green jackets increase safety. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m never taking my green jacket off… ever!

  • mdensch

    Anonymouser: Could you provide us with more data on the green jacket scenario. This sounds intriguing, I may have to buy one.

  • Anonymous

    I guess we have to take care of ourselves anytime. It doesn’t matter if it is a compact car or a SUV, safety should be our first priority. –

  • Erik

    I guess we have to take care of ourselves anytime. It doesn’t matter if it is a compact car or a SUV, safety should be our first priority.

  • James Breezy

    I own a Toyota Prius 2009 model.

    Talking about safety in a smaller car, well the Prius obviously has a awfully dangerous design flaw in the was the seat-belt buckle works.

    I had a passenger in my 2009 Prius connect the seat belt buckle in backwards or turned the other way around. It fit in and connected sure, but when that person went to remove the seat-belt, it was STUCK and would not come out.

    I took the Prium to a Toyota dealership and they told me that the seat-belt buckle was put in the wrong way and thats why it got stuck.

    This creates a potentially very dangerous possibility for people dying in a Prius due to a design flaw in the seat-belt connection.

    A seat-belt buckle should work both ways when inserted into the locking mechanism and connected.

    Boo on you Toyota for this horrid design.

  • TJ

    As soon as the Prius or any other small car can tow my boat/RV on the weekends and carry building materials (2×4, drywall,etc), so I can continue my work as a home renovator, I will get in-line. otherwise, understand that SOME of the Pickup trucks/SUV are neccessary. I do realize that many are just used for daily commutes, but that is also why it is now harder to find a sturdy truck or SUV (they need to have a soft ride for the soccer moms).

  • Sonia

    A number of factors contribute to the risk of collision including; vehicle design, speed of operation, road design, road environment, driver skill and/or impairment and driver behaviour. Worldwide motor vehicle collisions lead to death and disability as well as financial costs to both society and the individuals accident lawyer