As pickups and SUVs have become more popular, the distribution of vehicle types in fatal crashes has changed. Car occupant deaths have declined 49% since 1975. And yet in the same time period, pickup occupant deaths have risen 19% and SUV occupant deaths increased more than 10 times. However, since 1978, declines in death rates have been largest for SUV occupants.
According to the IIHS, the likelihood of crash death varies among the different vehicle types according to size. Small and/or light vehicles have less structure and size to absorb crash energy, so crash forces on occupants will be higher. People in lighter vehicles are at a disadvantage in collisions with heavier vehicles. Pickups and SUVs are proportionally more likely than cars to be in fatal single-vehicle crashes, especially rollovers. However, pickups and SUVs generally are heavier than cars, so occupant deaths in SUVs and pickups are less likely to occur in multiple-vehicle crashes.
In 2018, passenger vehicle occupant deaths represented 63% of the 36,560 motor vehicle crash deaths in the U.S. In the same year, cars had the highest number of deaths per registered vehicle both in single-vehicle crashes (18 per million) and in multiple-vehicle crashes (30 per million). SUVs, on the other hand, had the lowest number of deaths per registered vehicle both in single-vehicle crashes (8 per million) and in multiple-vehicle crashes (15 per million).
And this is not new information, meaning the problem has been known for decades. Per data from 2004 by the NHTSA>, the total occupant fatality rates per 100,000 registered vehicles by vehicle type and size were:
- Compact cars, 17.76%
- Compact pickups, 16.87%
- Subcompact cars, 16.85%
- Midsize SUVs, 16.16%
- Standard pickups, 13.87%
- Full-size SUVs, 12.34%
- Full-size cars, 12.16%
- Midsize cars, 11.49%
- Minivans, 11.09%
- Large vans, 9.34%
But the solution to this problem isn’t simply armoring small cars better against assaults from SUV drivers. U.S. crash testing programs have routinely failed pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, and everyone else who travels our streets outside an automobile. This is because, unlike virtually every other country, we do not test for the safety of anyone besides vehicle occupants.
However, as mega-cars increasingly dominate U.S. roads, the problem is unlikely to go away soon. In 2019, SUVs, large vans, and pick-up trucks made up 72% vehicle sales in the country. Analysts anticipate that number is likely to jump to 78% by 2025 if new car assessment programs aren’t reformed to recognize the inherent dangers of huge vehicles — both to highly vulnerable road users like pedestrians, and relatively-vulnerable drivers of small cars.