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Small Cars: Are They Really More Dangerous?

Small Cars & Higher Dangers
Small Cars: More Dangerous?

Small cars bring more affordable car payments but are they safer? The laws of physics tell us that when a large object and a small object crash, the larger one sustains less damage. But that scenario fails to tell the whole story.

True, numerous traffic studies confirm that SUVs top the list as safest category of passenger vehicle. SUVs feature higher hoods and roofs, meaning they’re less likely to slide under other vehicles in a crash.

Insurance industry statistics crunched over a 10 year period show 71 per cent fewer fatalities in large SUVs between 2005 and 2015. Smaller SUV crashes resulted in 60 per cent fewer deaths over the same decade.

But the size of the car factors in as only one issue in picking the safest car.

Small Cars, Safety Features & Hazards

More recent model cars offer higher safety levels than older small cars. But new larger and heavier cars still carry the day with greater levels of safety according to studies we include in the footnotes. It boils down to the laws of physics as mentioned above with bigger and heavier vehicles faring better in a crash than the lighter and smaller cars.

Larger vehicles made under more recent safety standards feature longer hoods and larger crush zones. This means they tend to come out of a crash in better shape than smaller vehicles or older large cars.

Studies also explain the large car small car difference. A smaller car gets pushed back in a head on crash with a larger SUV. Greater force bears down on the smaller vehicle’s driver and passengers. This can cause catastrophic injuries depending on the nature of the crash. Spinal cord injuries, head injuries and other less severe injuries to the neck and back can also result.

Are Sports Cars More Dangerous?

By nature smaller sports cars inherently carry more risk. But sporty cars also have advantages. A lower center of gravity and tighter suspension allow sports cars generally to handle evasive maneuvers such as quick turns much more efficiently than larger sports utility vehicles.

Don’t forget SUVs and their higher center of gravity tend to suffer roll-over accidents especially at highway entrance ramps and other sharp turns more often than lower sports cars. This raises a key factor in any discussion about safety: the habits, conduct and attitude of the driver. The same car presents more hazards with a bad driver than the same car with a more cautious driver. For example:

“The Nissan 350Z has a fatal crash rate of about double most sports cars. The 350Z is one of the most popular sports cars with young drivers, and young drivers crash more than other people.”

Buying a New Car for your new driver?, Bellingham Herald, Doug Dahl, July 18, 2017

All things being equal, sports cars tend to offer enhanced safety features like traction control, tight anti-lock braking, electronic stability systems and many others. But whether true or not the general observation holds that people who buy sporty vehicles tend to drive more aggressively. In general they push the car to its limits including driving at higher speeds and taking risks in cornering.

Small Cars & Risk Reduction

Older cars more than 10 years old fail to include safety features in new cars rolling off the assembly line at this time. Side airbags and electronic stability control now required in vehicles arguably make smaller cars safer than ever before. The stability control now in vehicles is intended to reduce the likelihood of rollovers

Are More Small Cars the Future?

Not everyone agrees that smaller create a higher level of highway danger. One group analyzed 17 million car crashes between 1989 and 2005. The National Bureau of Economic Research feels that its not necessarily the size of the vehicle as much as the size differential between the crashing cars. NBER claimed in April 2017 that when a small car strikes a larger vehicle the damage to the smaller vehicle is worse not because it is small per se, but because of the proportionate difference between the cars.

Authors of this study talk about the relativity of crash theory. Looking forward, the view sees an increase of the number of small cars on the highways in general due to fuel efficiency standards. This could make the highways safer. The argument is that auto makers must reduce the weight of vehicles to make them more efficient. Reducing the overall average weight of all vehicles on the road could in the long run reduce fatalities as a result of car crashes.

Fatalities in Small Cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 37,461 traffic fatalities in 2016. That’s the most recent year for which final numbers are available at this writing. 9,913 were driving passenger cars. 3,124 were driving sport utility vehicles, 3,590 pickup trucks.

Insurance industry data claims that between 2005 and 2015 the number of fatalities in mini cars went down 56 per cent. The decrease was 57 per cent in small cars. During the same time period the fatality rate in large SUVs decreased 70 per cent, with 60 per cent fewer deaths in smaller category SUVs.

This led to the conclusion that “bigger is still safer”.

Things to Look For in Buying a Small Car

The bottom line to all of the surveys shows us that yes smaller cars do tend to present higher dangers than larger vehicles. At the same time, all new cars carry safety features nonexistent in past years and decades. If buying a new car and a small car is in the picture, compare safety scores in the paperwork. Such scores come from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, and NHTSA.

Despite their higher initial cost new cars now come with safety features including better airbags, hardened roofs, crumple zones designed to absorb crash impact instead of the passenger cabin, and others.

Despite all of the above the laws of physics remain the same and larger vehicles will generally come out of a crash more intact than its smaller counterpart.

Andrew D. Myers, author of this blog article, practices personal injury law in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a free initial consultation in offices in Derry, NH and North Andover, MA.

Here’s more on one of the leading causes of car accidents: Distracted Driving.


Comparing Car Crash Safety Ratings: Big vs. Small and Old vs. New, Edmunds, by Ronald Montoya, Feb. 16, 2016.

Occupant Protection in Passenger Vehicles, NHTSA, publication DOT HS 812 494, February, 2018.https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812494

Small Cars, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Feb., 2018.

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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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