Vehicle Death Rate Figures are In

As passenger ships go, the Titanic had one of the highest death rates in history.  But was it an inherent problem in the vessel's design and/or construction or was running into the iceberg the big problem?

That's the type of question that should be asked -- but often isn't -- when it comes to looking at automotive death rates by vehicle.  For instance, the two-door, two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer sport utility vehicle was cited as having the highest rate of driver death from 2000 through 2003, according to a study just released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There were 308 driver deaths per million registered years during the four-year span between 1999 and 2002, the study by the insurance industry-funded group found. The Blazer also had the highest rollover death rate at 251 deaths per million registered years. 

At first glance, it seems as if the Chevrolet Blazer is the most dangerous vehicle of the last few years, especially when one considers the rollover statistic that seems to confirm the worst of the general public's thoughts on SUVs.  But while the study and, more important, the reporting that stems from the study seems to point the finger at the vehicle and at other vehicles that have high death rates, it seems to minimize the culpability of the drivers. 

From a portion of the report titled, ominously, "Vehicle body style, size, and fatality risk" the reports says, "important characteristics of vehicles that influence their driver death rates are type, body style, size, and weight. Within virtually every group of vehicles, the smaller and lighter models have the higher rates [of fatalities]."  No mention of drivers' tendencies at all.

Like the debate over genetics versus environment, the debate over whether the vehicle or the driver is the more important contributor to driver deaths at the wheel seems never-ending.  Which prompts us to bring back the Titanic analogy.  If the helmsman of the Titanic hadn't steered it into the iceberg, wouldn't its maiden voyage have ended in triumph rather than tragedy?  Similarly, if the drivers of Chevrolet Blazers were soccer moms and retirees instead of young singles, many of whom presumably drink and carouse, wouldn't the vehicle have a significantly lower driver death rate without one whit of mechanical change?

IIHS hints at the driver-as-cause phenomenon later in its report when it acknowledges "Because driver demographics can be a major influence, the death rate for each vehicle was adjusted according to the proportion of deaths of women 25-64 years old. These drivers are involved in fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver. For most vehicles the rates were adjusted by less than 20 percent."

A detailed explanation of how that "adjustment" was performed was not forthcoming from IIHS, but its CEO, Adrian Lund said, "This is the first year we've adjusted the rates to account for some driver characteristics.  The adjustment takes away some of the differences among vehicles caused by differences in driver gender. Other demographic factors still influence the death rates, but more of the differences in the rates reflect the vehicles."

Many would call Lund's last statement opinion rather than fact.  So while individual vehicle models' "death rates" might garner headlines and sound bites, the data could well be reflecting the behavior of the drivers who own those models rather than the characteristics of the vehicles themselves.  After all, the Titanic's sistership didn't sink, did it?

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad doesn't just write about cars; he also has a morbid fascination with shipwrecks.