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Which Vehicles are rated “Zero Death”?

Since 1989, the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has periodically published death rates— at first for cars only and later for all passenger vehicles— by make and model. These rates include only driver deaths because the passenger count is not recorded by IIHS. Recently IIHS has noted two remarkable developments. The first is that the chance of dying in a crash in a late-model car or light truck fell significantly in the three-year period 2009 through 2011. The study counted driver fatalities for models in a given year expressed as a rate per million registered vehicle years. It found an average of 48 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years for 2008 models through 2009. Three years later, the average had dropped to 28 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years for 2011 models through 2012. The second—a corollary finding— is that “nine car models had zero deaths per million registered vehicles.” This compares to the last such count done eight years prior in which there were no models with driver death rates of zero. David Zuby, the institute’s chief research officer, attributed this “huge improvement” to better vehicle designs and safety technology. The main caution regarding the study results was that the weak economy might have reduced the amount of driving. But still, he said, “We know from our vehicle ratings program that crash test performance has been getting steadily better. These latest death rates provide new confirmation that real-world outcomes are improving too.” The declining death rates are linked to a number of improvements. Electronic stability control has lessened the risk of rollover crashes, which, a decade ago, was particularly high for SUVs. The rollover death rate of 5 per million registered vehicle years for 2011 models is less than a quarter of what it was for 2004 models, and SUVs comprise six of the nine vehicles with zero deaths. There remains, however, a wide gap between the safest—all mid-sized or large vehicles—and the riskiest models—mostly lower-priced small cars. Of the nine models with zero deaths, seven were ‘luxury’ models: the Audi A4 four-wheel drive, a midsized car; the Honda Odyssey minivan; the Lexus RX 350 four-wheel drive, a midsized SUV; the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class four-wheel drive, a large SUV; the Toyota Highlander hybrid, a four-wheel drive midsized SUV; the Toyota Sequoia, a four-wheel drive large SUV, and the Volvo XC90, a four-wheel drive midsized SUV. The two moderately priced models were the Kia Sorento two-wheel drive, a mid-sized SUV and the Subaru Legacy, a four-wheel drive, 4-door midsized car. Three 2011 models had rates exceeding 100 deaths per million registered vehicle years. The highest ‘death rate’ according to the study vehicles were the Kia Rio, a 4-door mini car at 149 deaths; the Nissan Versa, a small 4-door sedan at 130 deaths, and the Hyundai Accent, a 4-door mini car at 120 deaths. ‘Zero’ deaths has been the target of road safety planning for over a decade. In 1997, Sweden’s parliament adopted a “Vision Zero” policy, and New York City has recently done the same. In 2009, The (US) Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, issued its plan “Toward Zero Deaths.” Certainly more models with zero deaths per million registered vehicles will help with achieving this goal.

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