Hybrids, Safety, and Size

The fact that hybrids run on electricity as well as gas has no bearing on their safety. A Honda Civic Hybrid is available with the same safety features and characteristics as a conventional Civic. The same holds true for the Escape Hybrid and Escape, the Camry Hybrid and Camry, and for the Prius and its closest conventional siblings, the Corolla or Camry. Because hybrids are available in many segments—from two-door coupe to SUV—car buyers can see a boost in mpg without sacrificing any safety, utility, or performance.

The safety question does come into focus for drivers considering a switch from a larger vehicle, which is likely to have low fuel economy, to a smaller more efficient car (ideally a hybrid). How do you evaluate the likelihood of meeting a gruesome fate in a car versus an SUV?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) uses the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Polk Company’s National Vehicle Population Profile to calculate: driver death rates per million registered vehicle years.

Occupant deaths per million registered vehicles 1 – 3 years old, 2003
Drivers in Cars: 81
Drivers in Pickups: 116
Drivers in SUVs: 70

All Occupants in Cars: 121
All Occupants in Pickups: 153
All Occupants in SUVs: 113

As you can see from the data, drivers of cars were more likely to be killed in an auto accident than drivers of SUVs. But just barely. Out of a million registered vehicles, there were only 11 more fatalities. (Don’t get me wrong, I know that every life counts.) A much bigger jump occurred among drivers of pickup trucks. Roughly the same differences show up when you look at all occupants, rather than drivers specifically.

IIHS studies of fatalities reveal other more or less obvious truths about car safety:

  • In multiple vehicle crashes, people in lighter vehicles are at a disadvantage.
  • Pickups and SUVs are proportionally more likely than cars to be in fatal single-vehicle crashes, especially rollovers.

This is the important one:

  • Death rates differences among vehicles of similar weight and size often outweigh death rates across categories. For example, the overall death rate of Honda Civic is much lower than rates for other small four-door cars like the Nissan Sentra and Dodge Neon. The Ford Explorer’s death rate is lower than the rollover-prone Isuzu Rodeo’s. In other words, each vehicle needs to be evaluated for its own record in both “death per million” and crash tests. Check out individual safety ratings from National Highway Transportation’s Safercar.gov website, and the IIHS’s http://www.hwysafety.org/vehicle_ratings/ratings.htm

The need for greater national fuel efficiency, which is served well by drivers abandoning oversized gas-guzzlers in favor of smaller vehicles, is usually trumped by the feeling of safety afforded by SUVs and large trucks. Statistical evaluations will do little to change that.