IIHS: Small Cars Remain, by Far, the Deadliest Ride for Teens

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
iihs small cars remain by far the deadliest ride for teens

The other week we brought you a list of best used car buys for teen drivers. Driver safety factored heavily into the choices compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Consumer Reports, with the cheapest offerings obviously being car-like in nature.

With their lower prices, cars remains the ride of choice among teens, despite the new vehicle market shifting violently away from traditional three-box conveyances. They’re also the type of vehicle teens are most likely to turn up dead in, and the trend shows little change, despite the rapidly evolving auto landscape.

A study of fatally injured U.S. drivers over a five-year span (2013-2017) reveals little variation in the trends previously identified by the IIHS in the 2008-2012 time frame. Over that latest half decade, “teens” (identified as 15- to 17-year-olds) involved in fatal collisions were overwhelmingly likely to be driving a car.

Some 63 percent of teen drivers killed were behind the wheel of a car, down only slightly from 64.2 percent for the 2008-2012 period. Of that group, 28 percent were driving a compact or subcompact car, with 24.9 percent behind the wheel of a midsize.

In comparison, drivers aged 35 to 50 killed during that time frame were in cars just 50.2 percent of the time.

Size matters when it comes to vehicle safety, but so does technology. And the fact that teens are more likely to be in an older small vehicle exacerbates the risk, skewing the stats towards cars. Some 38 percent of teen drivers killed in 2013-2017 were in a vehicle between 11 and 15 years of age, versus 31.6 percent for adult drivers. Only 3.7 percent of teen drivers killed over that period were in a vehicle ages three years or less. Ford adults, the figure was 8.6 percent.

The advent of side curtain airbags and electronic stability control has made driving safer, but when pennies are short, older models lacking such features can appear in driveways. Hence the reason for the IIHS’ “safe teen car” list the other week.

“Teenage drivers killed in crashes in 2013–2017 were driving even older vehicles than teenage drivers killed in 2008–2012. Even so, adult drivers were also driving older vehicles in 2013 2017 than they were in the 2008–2012 interval,” the IIHS study noted.

“While this shift to older vehicles has had a bigger impact on teen drivers, it could be the result of broader market trends towards vehicles remaining on the roads longer. However, a 5-year-old vehicle in 2017 likely was more advanced than a 5-year-old vehicle in 2012, with improvements in crashworthiness and safety technology.”

What about trucks and SUVs, you ask? As those bodystyles proliferate, they’re starting to make up a larger share of teen fatality stats, but not by much. From the first study to the latest, IIHS notes the percentage of teen drivers dying in a pickup rising just one point (17.1 percent to 18.1 percent). For adults, that figure dropped from 25.7 percent to 24.4 percent.

SUVs-as-death-chariots rose for both age groups. For 2013-2017, some 17.2 percent of teen victims met their end in an SUV, while 22.9 percent of adult victims could say the same — a rise of just four-tenths of a percentage point for teens and 1.4 percent for adults.

As for minivans, their presence in this list, much like their presence in America’s parking lots, is both insignificant and decreasing. Just 1.7 percent of fatally injured teens were piloting a minivan (down from 1.9 percent). Adults were more likely, comparatively, to be killed in one (3.6 percent, down 1 percent from 2008-2012).

While the IIHS applauds the introduction of graduated licensing laws in the U.S., it takes issue with the lack of progress, citing a need to go futher. States have not imposed the strongest available provisions, its states, “and efforts to pass new GDL legislation have essentially stopped in the past 5 years.”

As well, public health messaging directed at teen drivers seems to have had a minimal impact. There’s still a lot of work to be done to reduce teen driver fatalities, and the make and model and age of the car itself can’t be the one doing all the work.

[Image: General Motors]

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  • R Henry R Henry on Aug 13, 2020

    Beyond the issue of vehicle age and design is the MIND of the teen driver. I am deeply grateful to a friend who encouraged my son and I to jointly attend the BRAKES teen driving school. The website is here: https://putonthebrakes.org/ The program was created by a pro drag racer whose two sons perished in an auto crash while he was on tour. The half-day class is all about KEEPING IT REAL. The first half of the class is videos and discussion. The second half is outside--in REAL CARS donated by Kia. With racing drivers as guides, we (teen drivers AND the parents!) learned how to control skids, panic brake, etc. My son is now 21, and survived his teen driving years without issue. I am very thankful for the BRAKES program, and recommend it without heisitation to ALL FAMILIES WITH TEEN DRIVERS!!!

    • See 1 previous
    • Old_WRX Old_WRX on Aug 15, 2020

      Lately I've been watching a lot of car crash videos in youtube. I have noticed that they really seem to help with defensive driving. You get to see a great variety of scenarios that can lead to an accident. (And, yes, before someone chimes in about the morbid fascination that probably got me started watching accident videos, I will say that I started watching them out of morbid interest -- just like any good red-blooded American. The includes you: Lie2me. I hope this will save you from aggravating your carpal tunnel syndrome typing out some snide response;) )

  • DenverMike DenverMike on Aug 13, 2020

    The kids that were given air-cooled VWs, especially girls, or it's all they could afford, are better drivers throughout their lives, if they didn't die in a crash before they could get a real car.

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    • Old_WRX Old_WRX on Aug 15, 2020

      Neighbor kid up the street, a friend of my older brother, had a bug (a 1960's air-cooled one) that he had hopped up. Unfortunately, he was involved in bad accident. It took quite a bit of surgery to rebuild his face. He was never an overly bright guy, but after the accident he was even less so. Those old bugs were rolling death traps. I remember many times in the sixties seeing wrecked cars with a bulge in the windshield in front of the driver. Heard stories about people having holes punched in the skull with the old metal knobs sticking way out of the dash. People used to die in 25 mph accidents. Modern cars are vastly safer in an accident.

  • SCE to AUX Probably couldn't afford it - happens all the time.
  • MaintenanceCosts An ugly-a$s Challenger with poor equipment choices and an ugly Dealership Default color combination, not even a manual to redeem it, still no sale.
  • Cha65689852 To drive a car, you need human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.Unfortunately, these days even human brains are turning into mush thanks to addiction to smartphones and social media.
  • Mike1041 A nasty uncomfortable little car. Test drove in 2019 in a search for a single car that would appease two drivers. The compromise was not much better but at least it had decent rear vision and cargo capacity. The 2019 Honda HRV simply was too unforgiving and we ditched after 4 years. Enter the 23 HRV and we have a comfy size.
  • SCE to AUX I wonder who really cares about this. "Slave labor" is a useful term for the agendas of both right and left."UAW Wants Auto Industry to Stop Using Slave Labor"... but what will the UAW actually do if nothing changes?With unrelenting downward pressure on costs in every industry - coupled with labor shortages - expect to see more of this.Perhaps it's my fault when I choose the $259 cell phone over the $299 model, or the cheaper parts at RockAuto, or the lower-priced jacket at the store.Do I care about an ethical supply chain? Not really, I just want the product to work - and that's how most consumers are. We'd rather not know.Perhaps the 1990s notion of conflict-free, blood-free, ethically-sourced diamonds will find its way into the auto industry. That would be a good thing.