By on June 24, 2020

Just apply sunscreen first.

While most Americans hold reservations about going topless, preferring staid modesty over outlandish exhibitionism, many still enjoy kicking up their heels and getting the most out of life. Luckily for them, several automakers are only too happy to play along. And if that sort of thing’s your bag, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has good news for you.

Your convertible is likely just as safe as the coupe version of the same vehicle.

While the days of massive Detroit land yachts with bodies as rigid as Gumby and windshield frames thinner than Kate Moss are long behind us, the stigma they lent to top-down driving still looms over some psyches. No one wanted to be involved in a T-bone or rollover accident in one of those machines. As such, driving one took on an element of danger.

Clearly, their drivers were full of life.

Nowadays we have reinforced A-pillars and sturdy door beams and stability control and, in some cases, pop-up roll bars. Rollover protection is greatly increased in all new models, regardless of roof type.

1998 Chevrolet Cavalier in Phoenix wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This seems to be borne out in fatality data collected by two National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting systems and combined by the IIHS. In studying the rate of crashes and subsequent fatalities in 1- to 5-year-old vehicles from 2014 to 2018, the institute found that “both crash rates and driver death rates were lower for convertibles than for nonconvertible versions of the same cars.”

The IIHS noted that the difference in death rates between the two weren’t great enough to be significant. Still, the data shows that the old misconception about driving a drop-top is exactly that.

From the IIHS:

[IIHS Director of Statistical Services Eric Teoh] found that convertibles were involved in 6 percent fewer police-reported crashes per miles traveled than their conventional counterparts. Driver death rates were 11 percent lower. However, the likelihood that the driver was ejected from the vehicle in the event of a fatal crash was higher for convertibles than conventional versions.

Previous research has shown that for conventional cars a stronger roof reduces the risk of a serious or fatal injury as well as the likelihood of ejection in the event of a rollover crash. IIHS added a roof-strength evaluation to its crashworthiness testing program in 2009, making a good rating a requirement for the TOP SAFETY PICK award a year later.

It’s worth noting that convertibles currently on the market are either pored-over, painstakingly optimized sports cars or high-end fare (or both). Gone are the days when you could hop into a Chevrolet Cavalier or Dodge Shadow drop-top. Whether the elimination of the mainstream, low-end convertible market skews these findings in favor of coupe-convertible safety parity is unknown.

While the NHTSA data shows you’re not more likely to die in a convertible, the manner in which you depart this earth could indeed differ. The types of crashes incurred by both body styles were near identical, but convertible drivers are more likely to die via ejection than coupe drivers (21 percent vs 17 percent). Not surprisingly, the frequency of occupant ejection increases during rollover crashes.

Does data suggest that free-spirit convertible drivers flout road rules? Not really.

“Convertible drivers were slightly more likely to be wearing seat belts and slightly less likely to be speeding, though they were a bit more likely to be impaired by alcohol,” the IIHS stated. “These differences were too small to suggest a big variation in driver behavior for the two vehicle types.”

[Image: Ford, Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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20 Comments on “It’s Probably Safe to Drop That Top: IIHS...”

  • avatar

    It is pretty simple. For many people their convertible is not their primary commuter, and yes that has gone up since the discontinuation of convertibles based on commuter cars like the Cavalier, and PT Cruiser. So they are less likely to be out on a cold winter’s night and more likely to be out on a sunny Summer Saturday.

  • avatar

    You’ll pry the keys to my wife’s Absolutely Red ’06 Solara out of her cold, dead, fingers. Seating for 4 normal-sized adults, a usable trunk, and Camry reliability. (This one has the 3MZ-FE V6, not the 1MZ that was a sludge-monster.) One might hypothetically ask for handling a little sharper than a seasick whale, but that does not bother LadyWired overmuch.

    Roxie is garaged, so the original top is still intact, if starting to look a little worn.

  • avatar

    Once you drive a drop top, you can’t turn back. I love my MR2 Spyder and MR2 T top.

  • avatar

    These days most people driving converts have gray, gray under the blond, or no hair, so they are pretty much in the safer category to begin with.
    50 yrs ago was definitely not the case.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I’ve really become more of a sunroof fan after a string of Miatas. I was almost ready to go back, but it was hot out the last day I tested a convertible which reminded me that it usually is here.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Back in the mid 70’s when the rollover standards were proposed and the 1976 Eldorado was “The last American convertible” that people bought and even stored away as collectables the thought was that droptop were going away because of NHTSA. However it might have been the legendary Danny E. Davis who wrote a column at Car and Driver that theorized that droptops became less popular because of people not wanting to hear highway wind and noise, enjoying hi-fi stereo as well as vastly improved air conditioning systems that were becoming standard equipment and left drivers and passengers enjoying cool comfort while listening to the dulcet sounds of the Ray Coniff Singers.

  • avatar

    “However it might have been the legendary Danny E. Davis who wrote a column at Car and Driver”

    Might have been, but more likely the actual David E. Davis.

    Ah, I’ll never forget old what’s-his-name.

  • avatar

    When I was younger I had a real thing for convertibles. What better way to alleviate boredom with a car then to drop the top and completely change the driver experience, but at a cost of cold, leaky, noisy and little security. Then I discovered the joys of a nice big sunroof, 50% of the convertible experience with little drawback. I haven’t been without one since

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, sunroof and driver’s window down is close enough! Passenger window down if it’s not too breezy.

      All my Hondas — five, since 1994 — have been bought new, EX-grade or higher, with moonroofs, not a leak or plugged drain in the lot, with two minor operational issues fixed by the dealer regardless of warranty status.

    • 0 avatar

      Meh, not the same at all. I have a Spitfire in Maine and a Fiata in Florida. And of course, other things to drive when the mood isn’t striking – though in FL I drive the Fiata more than I drive my GTI.

      I’ll never be without a convertible, but I also would not own one as my ONLY car. But they work nicely as 2/5s of my cars.

      I like the theory of sunroofs, but being abnormally formed I find the actuality of them in the sorts of cars I prefer to mean not enough headroom. So my GTI doesn’t have one, and I wish my BMW didn’t either.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    T-top, T-top, T-top. All of the advantages of a ragtop with none of the disadvantages. Please bring back the t-top.

    Just pop the tops back on when it rains or you are parked. Better sound insulation and more theft resistant. Allows you to drive the vehicle in the winter, like a ‘normal’ car.

    The t-top also allows for greater structural integrity.

    And don’t even talk to me about sunroofs. Like non-alcoholic beer,a poor attempt at a ‘safe’ alternative.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t get the attraction. You have to stop to open the little holes in the roof. How is this better than a sunroof you can open and close at any speed? A big bar in the middle is somehow better than a little bar on each side? If I have to stop anyway, I want the WHOLE roof gone.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Because every sunroof that I have ever had experience with is just a hole cut in the roof of a regular vehicle. Big enough for wind noise, but not big enough for the drop top experience.

        Whereas the t-roof opens up everything except for a fairly small bar and therefore provides practically the same experience as a convertible. There is nothing but sky directly over your head. But with a ‘hard top’ for security. And it only takes seconds to latch the t-top panels back into place.

        I recommend that you try a t-top to discover the difference. Would The Bandit mislead you?

  • avatar

    I’ve only ever ridden in one convertible, my aunt’s Beetle. Luckily we weren’t going fast or my one ear, sans ear drum would have been very angry.

    I’ve heard they’re slightly more stable, at least the current ones, because the centre of gravity is so close to the ground.

  • avatar
    Funky D

    I’ve been a convertible fanatic for 30 years. Have had 4 of them, all of them with a Wolfsburg or VW crest somewhere on the car. Every other vehicle I own sans 1 has a sunroof. While that is no substitute for total open air experience, sometimes it has to do, and is still better than being “couped” up!

    I don’t drink and habitually wear a seatbelt, so I don’t think I am at a greater risk in a wreck than anyone else in a similar sized closed roof vehicle.

  • avatar

    Yep it costs a mere pittance to insure my ‘18 MX-5. I resisted buying a convertible for years because I figured my very delicate and fussy wife would dislike it. Yet she insisted she was a convertible person, and when I finally took the plunge it turns out the wind, the noise, the sun and the risk of bird poop were non-issues for her. People can surprise you even after almost 25 years of marriage.

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