Dietrich Jehle.

Dietrich V. Jehle, MD, says excellent crash safety ratings of passenger cars may provide a false degree of confidence.

Crash Ratings Less Relevant than Vehicle Type

Published June 7, 2013

Passenger car drivers are more likely to die in crashes with sport utility vehicles (SUVs), regardless of crash safety ratings, according to a study led by Dietrich V. Jehle, MD, professor of emergency medicine.

“Passenger vehicles with excellent safety ratings may provide a false degree of confidence to the buyer regarding the relative safety of these vehicles as demonstrated by our findings.”
Dietrich V. Jehle, MD
Professor of emergency medicine

In head-on collisions between passenger cars and SUVs, researchers found that drivers in passenger cars were nearly 10 times more likely to die if the SUV had a better crash rating. Drivers of passenger cars were more than four times more likely to die even if the passenger car had a better crash rating than the SUV.

“Passenger vehicles with excellent safety ratings may provide a false degree of confidence to the buyer regarding the relative safety of these vehicles as demonstrated by our findings,” says Jehle, first author.

Fatality Odds Higher for Passenger Car Drivers

“When two vehicles are involved in a crash, the overwhelming majority of fatalities occur in the smaller and lighter of the two vehicles,” says Jehle, who is also assistant medical director at Erie County Medical Center.

“But even when the two vehicles are of similar weights, outcomes are still better in the SUVs,” he says, “because in frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, due to bumper mismatch, crushing the occupant of the passenger car.”

When crash ratings were not considered, the odds of death for drivers in passenger cars were more than seven times higher than SUV drivers in all head-on crashes.

In crashes involving two passenger cars, a lower car safety rating was associated with a 1.28 times higher risk of death for the driver and a driver was 1.22 times more likely to die in a head-on crash for each point lower in the crash rating.

Prior studies on frontal crashes have found that compared to passenger cars with five-star crash rating, cars with a rating from one to four stars have a 7 to 36 percent increase in driver death rates, Jehle says.

Consider Vehicle Type When Buying

“Consumers should take into consideration the increased safety of SUVs in head-on crashes with passenger vehicles when purchasing a car,” Jehle asserts.

Jehle notes that after manufacturers addressed the rollover problem with SUVs, which plagued these vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s, rollover crashes are now much less common in SUVs.

“Currently, the larger SUVs are some of the safest cars on the roadways with fewer rollovers and outstanding outcomes in frontal crashes with passenger vehicles,” he says.

Retrospective Study Used Database of Deadly Crashes

Researchers conducted the retrospective study on severe head-on motor vehicle crashes in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System database between 1995 and 2010.

The database includes all motor vehicle crashes that resulted in a death within 30 days and includes 83,521 vehicles involved in head-on crashes.

Most Consumers Rely on Good Crash Safety Rating

Although Jehle’s study has found that crash ratings are less germane than vehicle type, the majority of potential vehicle-buyers rely on crash safety ratings as an indicator of how well the car will perform in an accident.

“Along with price and fuel efficiency, car safety ratings are one of the things that consumers rely on when shopping for an automobile,” says Jehle.

The one to five star safety rating system, created in 1978 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is based on data from frontal, side barrier and side pole crashes that compare vehicles of similar type, size and weight.

Presented at Society of Academic Emergency Medicine

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine on May 16, in Atlanta.

Jehle’s co-authors from the Department of Emergency Medicine are:

  • Joseph Consiglio, data manager/statistician in the department and graduate student in the School of Public Health and Health Professions
  • Christine DeSanno, DO, a resident
  • Juliana Wilson, DO, a post-doctoral student

Medical students Albert Arslan and Chirag Doshi also co-authored the paper.