Pickup trucks and SUVs scored better than the industry average in a new study on traffic fatalities, but some struggled as the number of driver deaths rose in 2015.
The overall rate of driver deaths for all passenger vehicles was 30 per million registrations for the model years 2011 to 2014, according to a report released Thursday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS.
The results come at a time when traffic deaths are rising. The number of people who died in a vehicle collision rose 7 percent to more than 35,000 in 2015, according to IIHS.
Pickups did better than average with a rate of 26 death per million vehicles registered, SUVs rated 21 and minivans rated 19, which was lowest mark among vehicles classified as light trucks. Passenger cars logged the highest fatality rate with 39.
Eleven vehicles did not register a driver fatality in IIHS’ findings, seven of which were light trucks such as the Jeep Cherokee 4WD, Audi Q7 and Toyota Tacoma Double Cab long bed 4WD.
Toyota pickup trucks earned the top scores among competitors in the segment.
Two variations of the Tacoma scored a 0 and a 13, respectively, to lead the small pickup segment. Likewise, two variations of the Toyota Tundra were leaders in the large pickup category with scores of 17 and a 19, respectively.
Ford Motor Co. also saw its light trucks place well. Several variations of the F-150 truck scored near the top of the large pickup segment, and the F-350 Crew Cab 4WD took top honors in the very large segment with a score of 13. Other light trucks such as the Expedition, Explorer and Escape posted low scores.
“We are glad to see strong results for F-150, Explorer, Expedition and Escape,” said Elizabeth Weigandt, a Ford spokeswoman. “Ford is committed to advancing safety technologies and crash performance to help our customers stay safe on the road.”
Others did not fare so well.
The Nissan Frontier Crew Cab short bed 4WD scored 16 driver deaths per million vehicles, which is middle of the pack compared with the Toyota Tacoma. However, the Frontier Crew Cab short bed 2WD scored a 42, the worst score in the small pickup segment. In the large pickup segment, the Nissan Titan Crew Cab short bed 4WD – the only Titan to qualify – scored a 73, by far the worst rating for a pickup truck of any size.
“We enjoy a collaborative relationship with IIHS and respect the work they do in the interest of highway safety in the United States,” said Steve Yeager, Nissan safety spokesman. “There are many factors that contribute to highway fatalities, and we will evaluate the data in this report along with IIHS and NHTSA crash test results to identify improvement opportunities.”
Ram Trucks also struggled. Its best model was the Ram 1500 Quad Cab 2WD at 29 driver deaths per million vehicles, while the 1500 Quad Cab 4WD scored 39 and the 1500 Crew Cab short bed 4WD scored 55 – beating only the Titan. Its 2500 Crew Cab short bed 4WD also scored a 44 for worst in the very large pickup segment.
When asked about the results of the report, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said in a statement that all its “vehicles meet or exceed federal safety standards.”
IIHS is careful to point out that the data is not an exact indicator of overall vehicle safety. The report examines only driver deaths, not passengers. Vehicles must have had at least 100,000 registered vehicle years to be included. Some notable trucks, such as the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Sierra 1500, did not register enough data to be included in the results.
Other vehicles had a larger sample size than others. The Titan, for example, barely crossed the 100,000 threshold and IIHS subsequently scored it with a 73 as the median between an estimated range of 16 to 130.
Vehicles with a large sample size and favorable score – such as the Ford F-150 SuperCrew 4WD with more than 2 million registered vehicles between 2012 and 2015 – and a rating of 24, can reasonably be assumed to be a safer vehicle than most, said Charles Farmer, vice president of research at IIHS.
The Honda CR-V and Jeep Grand Cherokee also did well. Each had more than 1 million registered vehicles during the timeframe, with respective scores of 14 and 16. Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Equinox topped 1 million registered vehicles but had a score of 33.
While the report shows the overall traffic fatality rate increased slightly in 2015, the rise to more than 35,000 deaths remains an improvement from figures that routinely topped 40,000 from 1990 to 2007.
That’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet crash once a week for a whole year.
A stronger economy has encouraged Americans to take to the road more often, particularly on weekends and during the warm summer months, which leads to more fatal accidents, Farmer said.
“That’s the reason for the big decline during the recession and that’s the reason for the increase that we’ve seen in these past few years,” he said.
Based on unemployment figures and studies of the national economy, Farmer expects the number of crash deaths will peak in 2016 and remain about even through 2024.
“That’s if nothing else changes,” Farmer said. “As long as the trends in the past 20 years keep up, that’s what the projection tells us.”
Smartphones and other potentially distracting technologies are not considered as influential in the figures and are not mentioned in the report.
One factor that could affect traffic fatality rates in the future is the rise of autonomous vehicles and automated safety features.
Farmer said it will be some time before enough autonomous vehicles are on the road to have a direct impact on traffic fatalities. However, some automakers are rapidly increasing the use of automated safety features such as automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control.
Toyota did not comment on the results of the IIHS study directly but stressed its commitment to automated safety equipment. Last year the automaker announced that nearly all its new vehicles will come standard with Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) packages by the end of 2017.
“Deploying crash avoidance and mitigation technologies, across all sizes and types of vehicles as we are doing is very important,” said Mike Sweers, chief engineer of trucks for Toyota.
One automaker in the pickup truck market confirmed to Trucks.com its intention to spread standard automated safety equipment across its lineup. Another major manufacturer said it expects to make such equipment standard in its vehicles, but is not ready to announce plans.
The IIHS and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have already set a target date of 2022 for automatic emergency braking to be included as standard on all new vehicles sold in the U.S.
“If we see a ramping up of technology, then things should get better,” Farmer said.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a statement from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles regarding the findings of the IIHS report.