You may have heard that bigger vehicles are better when it comes to your safety during an auto accident. Crash tests and safety studies suggest that may be the case in many circumstances. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that your small car is a death trap. There are several interwoven factors that affect your safety -- and you auto insurance premiums.
The type of accident
All cars can get in accidents, no matter their size. SUVs are just as likely as subcompacts to hit patches of ice and run into other vehicles. The type of accident (single-vehicle, rollover or multivehicle) can make all the difference.
Actually, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks may be more likely to get into rollover accidents because of their higher centers of gravity. In fact, because of the greater frequency of rollovers, pickups had overall higher death rates than smaller cars did in 2008 (87 passenger deaths per million registered passengers vs. 65 for cars).
But when it comes to multicar accidents, the size of your vehicle can play a huge role in determining fatality risk. In general, occupant deaths in multicar crashes are higher for small cars than they are for SUVs and pickups, according to IIHS. Small cars had the highest death rate in 2008 for multivehicle crashes (35 deaths per million registered passengers vs. 31 for pickups and 16 for SUVS). In other words, if a big car and a small car get in a serious accident, you'll want to be in the bigger one.
Across all accident types, SUVs fared the best at keeping their passengers alive. They had the lowest death rates for multivehicle, single-vehicle and rollover accidents, according to IIHS. Vehicle design may explain some of this discrepancy. SUVs are frequently designed with more advanced safety features, as they tend to be marketed as family vehicles.
Safety in size
Within each category analyzed by IIHS (cars, pickups and SUVs), there are different sizes, such as subcompact vs. sedan. When size (not accident type) is the only factor, size does seem to mean safety. The largest vehicles in the car category had half the death rate of the smallest, according to IIHS numbers. And, when it came to SUVs and pickups, the death rate decreased as size increased.
Can small be safe?
What if you're concerned about both your safety and fuel efficiency? Fortunately, improvements in technology are making small cars safer. According to a June 2011 news release from Allstate, 20 of the 29 small vehicles tested by IIHS for the 2011 and 2012 model years earned a "Top Safety Pick" designation.
To get this designation from IIHS, vehicles must perform well in crash tests that measure performance in front, side and rear collisions, as well as rollover accidents. According to Allstate, fuel-efficient models that got top marks included the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, the 2012 Ford Focus and the 2012 Honda Civic.
However, Edmunds.com cautions drivers that many crash test ratings reflect only how well a car performs when it collides with others in its class. So a small car with an impressive safety rating still would not be any match for a huge SUV.
Auto insurance implications
There is no direct connection between vehicle size and auto insurance premiums. Insurers take a multitude of factors into account, including your driving record, your age, your gender and the value of your car. However, safer cars can be less expensive to insure, with insurance companies offering discounts for auto safety features, from air bags to antilock brakes.