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Staying safe in your car is no easy task. The fact of the matter is, driving is pretty dangerous. Statistically, it’s the most dangerous thing most people will do regularly. With that in mind, multiple agencies have spent decades trying to understand and fix the issues we face in road safety. Thanks to government regulations and research by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), driving fatalities have been in decline since the 1970s. However, they are starting to creep back up. One factor that seems to contribute to this is the fact that small cars are much more dangerous than bigger cars and SUVs. 

IIHS Top Safety Pick award crash testing a Nissan Altima
A 2016 Nissan Versa, left, is test crashed into a 2015 Nissan Tsuru | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Are small cars less safe? 

Basic physics tells us that small cars are less likely to keep you safe than bigger ones. Business Insider points out that the safest sports car in the world isn’t likely to do all that well against a semi-truck. 

Although that sports car and semi-truck scenario is fairly common sense, data is better than hearsay. New Data from the NHTSA shows just how much more dangerous small cars are than bigger cars and SUVs.

Studying driver fatalities occurring from 2015 through 2018 in vehicles from the 2017 model year, as well as older vehicles with the same design, the IIHS found that 15 of the 20 models with the highest death rates were small cars and minicars. For the most part, the study found that the safest cars were SUVs. 

What does the IIHS say about small car safety?

Make and model badging on the trunk of a Fiat 500X subcompact crossover SUV model
Fiat 500X rear badging | FCA

Smaller vehicles offer less protection for the driver in crashes, and their lighter mass means that they take the brunt of collisions with larger vehicles,” Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president of vehicle research, said in a press release. 

Business Insider points out that although the IIHS is working hard to figure this stuff out, there are some problems with the study. At first, the IIHS didn’t take into account factors such as road imperfections, driving speed, or the amount of time spent driving. Once the organization went back and reran the data with mileage as a factor, the data remained fairly consistent that vehicle size played a major role in road deaths. 

How much does a car’s safety rating matter?

IIHS testing
IIHS side-impact testing | IIHS

While the IIHS and NHTSA safety ratings are good info to have, they certainly don’t guarantee that you’ll be safe in the event of a car crash. When cars are crash tested, the result is based on the weight of the test vehicle. The crash test never takes into account the potential weight of something else involved in the crash. In fact, the IIHS even said in 2018 that those who buy smaller vehicles “are choosing a lower level of protection” even if that car has great safety ratings. 

The top 20 most dangerous cars on the road

Of the 20 most dangerous cars on the road, 17 of 20 are either sedans, coupes, or minicars. Only three SUVs appear on the list. Models like the Fiat 500, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Elantra, and other such sedans populate the list. The only SUVs to make it on the list of the most dangerous cars are the Kia Soul, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and the Chevy Trax. Notice that these three SUVs are also on the smaller end of the segment. 

All of the data shows a pretty direct throughline that shows smaller cars as a more dangerous vehicle choice. Again, it’s important to note; it’s not that all of these models are inherently unsafe; it’s more of the fact that the safest small car in the world won’t do well against a collision with a three-row SUV or full-size pickup truck