Last year, American consumers purchased 2.7 million pickup trucks, accounting for 15 percent of record auto sales of 17.6 million.
However, despite the flashy appeal and almost unlimited capability they provide, the vehicles – unlike many passenger sedans, crossovers and SUVs – don’t always have the latest safety equipment or highest ratings.
Just two pickups on sale today stand out in terms of safety.
The 2017 Honda Ridgeline was the only truck to earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest ranking as a Top Safety Pick Plus this year. It was also the first for any large truck since the institute began testing them in 2001.
The 2017 Ford F-150 scored well in the IIHS crash tests, but lost out on the overall ranking because of poor headlight performance and the lack of any available automated crash prevention, two new tests IIHS began weighing in its scores for 2017.
“Pickups used to be the laggards, the sort of last vehicles to get safety upgrades, the last vehicles to get things like side airbags and electronic stability control,” says Russ Rader, spokesperson for IIHS. “But now they have those features. If you’re looking for a new pickup, there are many more choices now that do a very good job in our safety evaluations.”
Honda also thinks crash avoidance and protection is a selling point for its pickup buyers. Through the end of 2016, 30 percent of Ridgeline buyers opted for models equipped with the driver assistance technologies that earned it the top IIHS rating. This figure doubled Honda’s original projections.
“Passenger safety is always the first priority with Honda vehicle design and technology, and Ridgeline is no exception,” said Davis Adams, spokesperson for Honda Motor Co. “Quite simply, it's the safest truck on the road, full stop.”
The Ridgeline’s top RTL-E and Black Edition modelscome with advanced safety technology such as forward collision prevention, radar-guided cruise control and lane keep assist, and – according to Honda –they proved twice as popular with the truck’s buyers in 2016 than originally anticipated.
Honda also topped IIHS’ scores because of the LED headlights on these models, which start at $42,000.
The company will continue to explore adding this technology on the other Ridgeline trim levels in the future, Adams said.
Though it missed out on making the cut for IIHS’ 2017 rankings, it’s possible Ford is not far from earning top marks in the future for its new F-150.
The 2018 F-150 debuted in January at the Detroit Auto Show with added features including new headlights as well as a pedestrian detection system and Pre-Collision Assist. The new truck is scheduled to arrive on dealer lots this fall. IIHS has not yet tested the 2018 F-150.
Ford declined to comment on whether the F-150’s new safety features would boost the pickup’s ratings in future IIHS evaluations.
Aside from Ridgeline, the only other truck tested that passed IIHS’ headlight evaluation was the GMC Sierra. Poor scores in this area have knocked a number of vehicles, not just pickups, from the top of the IIHS rankings.
Most manufacturers have pledged to make automatic emergency braking standard in pickups by 2022, Rader said.
Regardless of added safety technology, trucks may still struggle to make the cut because their construction doesn’t absorb impacts as well as most cars, and also puts those riding inside smaller vehicles at greater risk of injury.
Most pickups will always be at a crash test disadvantage because of the way they’re built, said Jack Gillis of the Center for Auto Safety and publisher of The Car Book.
“Trucks have often tended to be more rigid and stronger than passenger cars and as a result do not collapse as easily in the event of a frontal collision,” Gillis said. “They end up transferring that energy back into the passenger compartment.”
Yet Gillis says manufacturers have been able to better protect occupants in pickups now than in previous years because of advanced technologies and new constructions.
The Car Book annually ranks vehicles across all segments in various categories such as warranty claims, fuel economy and safety features. It measures vehicles using an index of factors that include scores in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s crash tests as well as available standard and optional safety features.
Of the eight pickups – both mid- and full-size – The Car Book ranked, F-150, Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado scored the highest, with the Toyota Tacoma trailing the bunch.
In the crash testing done by NHTSA, the F-150, Sierra and Silverado all received top honors – five-star scores. Every other pickup ranked received four stars overall, partly because of relatively low three-star ratings in the rollover likelihood test on some variants.
Ridgeline received five stars from NHTSA, but was not included in The Car Book’s index.
Gillis said there have never been so many truck models that have scored highly in his index.
“Trucks have traditionally lagged behind because many of them have been sold for commercial purposes,” he said. “There’s tremendous cost-consciousness for those buying a truck for work use.”
For roughly a decade, new pickups sold in the U.S. have come standard with electronic stability control that has been shown to prevent crashes in all vehicles, said Joan Claybrook, safety advocate and former head of NHTSA.
But because of their higher center of gravity, especially on off-road oriented four-wheel drive models, pickups will never be the safest vehicles for those not also driving a pickup, Claybrook said.
“Trucks are much more dangerous than other cars on the highway because they’re higher up and stiffer,” she said. “And when they have a crash with a car, the occupants in the lower and smaller vehicle are at much greater risk of injury.”
Newer rollover regulations have improved safety for those inside pickup trucks, but not enough has been done to make them as safe for families as more traditional sedans and wagons, Claybrook said.
Still, Rader says he is encouraged by the advancements automakers have rolled out in improving pickup safety, even in the smaller mid-size category, which includes the perennial top-selling Toyota Tacoma.
The mid-size truck segment in the U.S. grew more than 25 percent last year and brands such as Ford, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are looking to cash in on that strong growth in the coming years.
For now, Ford and Honda lead in the safety ranks for pickups, according to safety officials. But while other manufacturers study new collision prevention technology, pickup truck still trail many SUVs – especially crossovers and wagons – as the safest family vehicles.