Study: Small Cars at Greater Risk in Accidents


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released a new report stating that very small cars face significantly greater risk in crashes with midsize cars. IIHS crash-tested three subcompact or microcars – the Honda Fit, Smart ForTwo and Toyota Yaris – versus their respective brand’s midsize sedans in frontal offset tests, similar to how the agency conducts all of its frontal tests.

The results? Physics wins. This is something we mention here on KickingTires and on whenever crash-test results like this come out. Crash tests can generally only predict how well a car or SUV does within its class or competitive makeup, not against other types of vehicles. The exception is IIHS’ side-impact tests, which simulate impacts with SUVs for every vehicle.

What these fresh results from IIHS spell out is that in a frontal collision, physics dictate that the larger vehicle in the test will fare better than the smaller one. Force is distributed unevenly, making the small car lose out in any matchup versus a larger car.

Crash statistics prove this to some degree. In 2007, small-car crashes resulted in a 17% higher fatality rate than midsize-car crashes.

There are legitimate reasons for purchasing small cars like the Fit and Yaris. They are less expensive than larger models and they get better fuel economy. But car shoppers should also consider thrifty midsize cars like the 2009 Chevy Malibu and 2010 Ford Fusion, which get 33 and 34 mpg on the highway, respectively. Both can be had for around $20,000 in base four-cylinder trim, and the Fusion is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The Malibu got top ratings for frontal and side crash tests, but received only Marginal scores in rear tests. However, these are the exact types of midsize cars that IIHS is saying are safer due to physics.

The Top Safety Pick Honda Accord would also be a safer bet, but an automatic version only gets 30 mpg on the highway. The Toyota Camry gets 31 highway mpg and has the same crash-test ratings as the Chevy Malibu. It too comes in around $20,000 in base form.

Consider that a Honda Fit starts at roughly $15,000 and gets 35 highway mpg, and shoppers with the ability to move up a price class might see a very big safety benefit to doing so.

We’d like to see IIHS try similar tests in the compact class, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and perhaps a high-volume domestic vehicle, like the Ford Focus. Would that segment, which has seen cars get bigger recently, hold its own against midsize vehicles?

By David Thomas | April 14, 2009 | Comments (35)
Tags: Safety



In 2006 my wife, in her 04 Focus, had a nasty collision with a Ford Expedition. The Expedition won big time (Focus totaled), but the Focus crumpled exactly as it was supposed to do. My wife walked away without a scratch.


Mileage is not the only thing differciate the different vehicle that people purchase. For example, tyre sizes will be different and price for tyres are different; manuver ability also comes into play; and some of us just don't like/need a bigger vehicle.

That's good to hear, Max. I've seen and heard of similar experiences.

What I'm wondering is if anyone out there was surprised by these results. It seems like the advantages of size and weight are pretty widely known; it's a commonly cited justification for buying an SUV. I wasn't surprised by any of it, but it's good to see an actual measure of the differences, and it's interesting to see a crash agency address the single-vehicle aspect. With less structure to absorb energy and less weight to dislodge an obstacle (tree, barrier, etc.), a smaller car has a disadvantage when it collides with virtually anything. It's an argument against the claim that if ALL cars were smaller, the roads would be safer. There are plenty of reasons to buy small cars; I stand by that, but it's food for thought. --JW


And not to mention that the theory about smaller cars might have a better chance of manuver from of an accident without a scratch.


Joe: You're correct that here is no way to escape the laws of physics. Weight and mass will always win. Before we had SUVS, there were trucks to collide with - at a time when the vast majority of people drove cars. That means that we'll never escape the fact of collisions between different sized vehicles.

The reason that I mentioned the Focus accident was that the article talked about similar tests between midsize and compact cars, like the Focus. The compacts seem to have a far longer front end than the new subcompacts. That means they have more area and mass to absorb damage.


I wonder how much the higher fatality rate for small car accidents involved older small cars with fewer safety features?

I'm not ready to move to a bigger car yet, I like the way small cars drive and park, I always have.


I think more and more people are considering crash test scores, I know we did. When my wife and I crossed shopped the Altima, Accord, Camry and Malibu, crash test scores and interior quality ended-up being the difference in us buying the Accord over the Malibu. I found it inexcusable Chevy would design a new car that only scored Marginal in rear crash tests. It cost them a sale.

The study pretty much rejected the maneuverability question with results from single car accidents involving these smaller vehicles also having an elevated fatality rates.

All the results were for late model small cars yes.



One car accident is not the same as this test they are conducting, right? This test is about having a bigger vehicle hitting a smaller vehicle.


No, what I meant was that the study suggested that if maneuverability actually helped, you would see a difference in fatality from accidents where that would have an effect, multiple vehicles, and those where it wouldn't, single car accidents. Since there was no large variance they concluded maneuverability didn't actually come into play.


You got me more confused now. From what I understand you is that because there was no clear difference of fatality between multiple car accident involving small cars, and single car accidents involving small cars; therefore maneuverability did not come into play?
But what I was thinking is that if the small car actually maneuver out of the accident, then the it would not be another number on the statistics, right? Maybe we should submit this to mythbusters and have them play it out. :)


I saw this story today on my local morning News station this and thought, “Who didn’t know that if you take a Fortwo Smart car (car shown on the report I saw on TV) and crash it head on into a larger vehicle that the larger vehicle wouldn’t win.”
For me, I never wanted a small car. To me a mid size with decent mpg and more safety is better than a small hatchback with mid - high 30’s mpg that would become my ataúd in a collision. I’m not knocking small cars. There is nothing wrong with them. Over the years I have rented smaller cars and felt that they were more fun and maneuverable than larger ones. I’m sure they are making them safer than ever but, I personally I still feel safer in bigger car (larger crumple zone).

You're not understanding. If there are just as many accidents involving NO OTHER cars, then, the same small car's maneuverability should have LOWERED the number of multiple car fatalities compared to single car fatalities. There was no measurable difference according to the study and I think the multi car number was actually slightly higher.

Personally, I never understood the maneuverability argument. An Accord handles pretty darn well too.

Ken L.

You do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that upon the moment of impact, a driver in a smaller, lighter vehicle, will almost always suffer more damage than the driver in the larger vehicle. While saving gas is important, life, liberty and the pursuit of _____ is worth more when you survive a crash. I cringe every time I see a Smart ForTwo and other upcoming micro cars just thinking about what would happen in a crash. All it takes is a little common sense.

You'd think that as fuel efficiency, safety, and overall technology increases in viability, there's two ways we can go - small or midsize. And seeing how some midsize cars (Fusion, Malibu) get pretty much equal real-world fuel economy with compacts, and to some extent, subcompacts, besides the few grand premium (which is virtually nonexistent with automakers' offers nowadays), there's really no reason for the dash to smaller cars. This is only further justified by this new study.

Always thought things like the Smart were just playthings...still don't think they can compete on the same level as real cars.


The important statistic should be; "what are the chances you'll be in a crash with a given type of vehicle?"

Nobody wants to suffer that regardless of how well shielded.


Great, these tests will start a hysteria to buy bigger SUV's and cars again.

I've always had small cars; a Metro, Aspire, Justy, Elantra, Aveo, and Escort, and will continue owning them. These are the best cars on an everyday basis to own because they save me money and are easy to park anywhere in the city. People always ask if I'm worried about getting into a crash, and blantant answer is "no". The best defense is a good driver behind the wheel, and I can't keep worrying about what could happen. If you worry about life too much, you'll never get out alive. Although gruesome, I've always joked that my demise would probably be very quick if it ever happened, unlike the other driver who may be unlucky enough to survive and be in agony.

At last, a more honest test.

I believe that my invention solves the problem of making cars lighter and safer.


I agree about the laws of physics making this obvious. However the logical conclusion of the argument is that we should all be driving Sherman tanks. When my wife and I bought a Honda Fit, we discussed the safety aspect beforehand and agreed that the reduction in overall safety was outweighed by the environmental benefits of a small car. It's not just the better mileage, it's the substantial reduction in the amount of materials and energy that went into manufacturing the car in the first place. Furthermore if enough people follow suit, the average car on the road will be smaller and overall safety for small car drivers will improve because they will crash less often with larger cars. Someone has to start the ball rolling, don't you think?

Also, to put the recent results in perspective, they were the result of head-on crashes between a small car and a midsize car with a combined impact speed of 80 mph. If most of your driving is urban or suburban, this would represent a relatively unusual -- although by no means rare -- event. Many crashes are side or rear, and some small cars (including the Fit) have respectable results in such cases.

That settles it then, I'm going to buy the biggest baddest SUV I Can find. The only problem now is how do I come up with $40,000 dollars or more for the big chunk of metal, high insurance premiums, and my own refinery to keep the bohemeth going? I suppose I could get a second mortgage like some do to buy depreciating assets. The good thing is if I get forclosed on I can live in it. OH! and has anyone seen how badly the soccer moms park these monsters. IT'S FOR THE CHILDREN!.


Next we will have a crash test between the mid-size and large size cars. We amazingly discover the large size cars drivers have a better chance of survival.
Then we do a crash test between the large size cars and 18 wheelers. We amazingly discover the 18 wheelers drivers have a better chance of survival.
Then a crash test between 18 wheelers and Abrams tanks. Guess who survives?
Yes, Force equals Mass times Acceleration
BUT, the BIG COMPANIES are the winners.
The sponsors of the test want you to forget about the laws of physics making this obvious and buy bigger. Why? Detroit gets more profit from bigger cars, insurance companies get bigger premiums from bigger cars, bigger cars get lousy gas mileage and you buy more gas and on and on and on.
It is all about BIG MONEY,

Never mind the little people.

To us little people, as Ryan says: 'The best defense is a good driver behind the wheel.'
Be alert, drive defensively and don't worry about what could happen.
Life is too short and our wallets too thin to worry about what could happen "IF".
I still love my 1984 Honda CRX
(42 MPG City - 46 MPG Highway)



i was waiting for that one. crash any vehicle into a 18-wheeler and see what happens. these types of comparisons are just about feeding fear. stupid really. how did we all survive before airbags, crumple zones, stability control, traction control, and nerf? people must have just been dying as soon as they sat in their 'unsafe at any speed' vehicles.

every manufacturer makes big vehicles (except mini i guess...for now), so your assertion that the evil manufacturers from detroit are behind this is silly. oh, and all the company's make more money on their larger vehicles, not just the guys from detroit.

drive what you want. be as safe as you can. take responsibility when you're not. don't blame the manufacturers...

Tom Porter

I drive a 1988 Pontiac Fiero, and feel just as safe as anything on the road. Now, i do look up occasionaly when sitting at a red light with a big suv next to me, my head roughly the same level as the top of his tires... Only thing I'm worried about is big rigs may not see the car if they change lanes. But the sardine can gets 35mpg... and is really fun to drive. Unless you get into an MG, you cant get much smaller than a fiero... imagine me hitting any kinda car, oohhh, thats gotta hurt!

Shawn Clements

On this morning's "Morning Edition" a care dealer (in PA, I think) had a fully loaded (leather, sun roof, etc.) Ford Fusion for just under $20,000. Now might a good time for a bargain!

Brad Meyer

The physics win here because we are talking about an accident that is already happening. To actually calculate the danger of driving one vehicle versus another, we would have to factor in the accident rate for that vehicle.

To pick the most compelling example, SUVs as a class fare way better than mid-sized vehicles in these tests, but their occupants in the real world suffer fatalities (per driver mile, which is a real measure of your danger) at a 34% higher rate that drivers of sedans. This is because they are so much less controllable that their accident rate is quite a bit higher.


I would like to see statistics about road safety in the US vs Europe, where I live now, and were almost all cars are small.

From the European perspective stating the obvious about smaller cars being less-secure when colliding with bigger cars, sounds more like SUV promotion than anything....


I give you people this simple equation:

F = M(a)

or Force equals Mass x Acceleration

....and the mysteries of the universe have been revealed to you. No crash test necessary.

So...what this means? Given that both vehicles are traveling at the same speed in a head-on collision. Given that 1 vehicle weighs more (i.e. MassA > MassB) =>

Fa = Ma x A
Fb = Mb x A
Fa > Fb

Ergo...Fa wins.

here endeth the lesson.


Bigger cars do better than smaller cars in accidents, no doubt about it.
How about limiting the car size ang horse power according to driver's age?
I know that this can go against many people's beliefs about liberty, freedom and an overbearing state, but is there a need for a 16 y.o driving around a 3 ton vehicle with 300+ HP?

We should also look into the other end of the spectrum, with an aging population, we are poised to see an increase in older drivers getting into accidents. If they drive bigger, heavier cars, everybody loses.

I completely agree with previous posters who mentioned that we should all consider driving smaller cars for a variety of reasons, otherwise we may get into an "arms race" (or cars race") to get the biggest, heavier vehicle just in case we get into a crash, damaging the environment in the mean time.

Lastly, what about manual transmission for younger drivers as a way to keep them more engaged in the driving, rather than just stomping on the gas and brake pedal?
My 2 cents.

F1 race cars are very small and they hit very big things (like walls) and fly into tiny bits. But the driver usually walks away unscathed. Mercedes claims to use the same technology to protect Smart-car drivers.

Auto insurance companies are naturally concerned about damage to the car, since they have to pay for it.

I'm more concerned about injury to people than to the cars, since any car that's been in that kind of accident is considered totaled, anyway, or at least repair goes over the deductible

My question is----
What do the crash test dummies say?
Mercedes says they have test results--do they?


There is no mention in this article about how accident AVOIDANCE also plays a role in car safety. Smaller cars are actually safer because they can avoid accidents where large SUV's tend to be in more crashes. If you look at national statistics on the mortality rate of SUV's vs small cars, the per capita mortality rate is lower for small cars.
What this article says is that once a small car is in an accident, it is less safe which makes perfect sense.
As one of the other comments pointed out - it's purely a matter of physics.

Nancy M.

Might want to look at crashes in terms of cell phone and text messaging usage. No matter what size car one is driving the real danger is all the distractions inside the vehicle to the driver. Laws must be strenuously enforced revocations imposed.Cell phone distraction and texting is just as bad as driving drunk. How infuriating seeing mom's SUV taxis filled with children with mom talking on a hand-held cell phone no headset totally distracted. And SUV's are still at risk for rollover. One final thought: my Volvo 240 and I had a collision with a giant truck. I walked away without a scratch. Steel reinforced cars do save lives.

John W Andrews

I am an attorney. I represent the widow in a low speed roll over 1991 Mitsubishi Eclipse roof crush case.
The vehicle only rolled a half roll. The roof was so weak, that the roof caved in on the passenger right to the passengers head rest.
In doing research, I discovered that the Pontiac Fiero had a special design, much like a NASCAR.
I believe if my client had been riding in a Ponitac Fiero that most likely he would have walked away uninjured.
This is because the roof was much stronger than any other American vehicle made doing that time.
If any of you can find a 1983 to 1988 Pontiac Fiero roll over accident, I would like to see it.
Tom Porter in his April 20, 2009 comment indicated he felt safe.. Tom should keep his Fiero.
Thank all of you for any help, you can provide.
john andrews

If you are a car enthusiast and are looking for cost-effective insurance solutions for your collections of cars then Multi Car Insurance For Enthusiasts is the best buy for you. Multi Car Insurance For Enthusiasts is a specialist insurance plan designed to cater to the varied requirements for car enthusiasts. You can insure your entire collection of classic, vintage, sports and premium cars under one plan and thus reduce your insurance bills and save yourself from the troubles of managing several insurance policies.

I've seen and heard of related experiences. I surprise how much the superior fatal accident rate for small car accidents involved older small cars with less safety features

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