Cars are getting smaller, and as an injury attorney, this worries me. While safety systems are much improved, you just cannot beat basic physics. Small cars are cheaper to own and operate, as they get better mileage, and they are quite easy to get around parking lots.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crashes millions of dollars of perfectly good new cars to gauge how well they might protect their occupants. They once simply crashed head on into barriers like most government tests still do. This spread the forces over a maximal area.
However, to their credit, they have recently made some frontal impact crash tests slightly off center. These focus force on one front corner, at 40 m.p.h. I think this better indicates the real world case of a drunk crossing the centerline slightly. It has also revealed what I had predicted: small cars are generally more dangerous.
The front end of a car usually has a “crush zone.” Often, small notches are cut into the frame that allow it to crumple. This dissipates the force more slowly, which is better for the occupants. However, the newer corner impact tests seem to mostly bypass this crumple zone, and this puts the passenger compartment at risk.
I am not even familiar with many of the newest smaller models, all under 2,500 lbs. I still lope around in my immense, gas-guzzling 5,000 lb.+ Suburban. But out of almost a dozen cars, only one known as the “Chevy Spark” was even acceptable. None were ranked “good.” The subcompacts that did not even make the “acceptable” cut included subcompact cars from Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Fiat and Honda. Safety ratings can be deceptive. A large SUV and a small sedan might share identical safety ratings, but they are rating cars within the same size class.
In general, occupants heavy cars and trucks come out better in a crash. Large, heavy vehicles, like my behemoth SUV, long, wide crumple zones, and often shove the lighter car backward at impact. Thus, the rates of driver deaths are higher for the lighter vehicles. Midsize and large SUVs are safest, as SUVs are also not prone to under-ride another vehicle in a crash, while risk of roll over is still significant.
No amount of safety equipment can truly protect any of us from a distracted driver.