Car mass and fatality risk: has the relationship changed?

Am J Public Health. 1994 Jan;84(1):33-6. doi: 10.2105/ajph.84.1.33.


Objectives: The finding that the relative safety disadvantage of small compared with large cars is less for post-1980 cars than for pre-1980 cars has stimulated speculation that increasing fuel economy standards would increase fatalities less than previously expected. Fatal crashes between two cars of similar model year were examined to see whether this would be the case.

Methods: Driver fatality risk in relation to car mass was examined with Fatal Accident Reporting System data for crashes between two cars of a specific model year.

Results: The relative risk for driver fatality in the lighter car compared with the other driver's risk in a car 50% heavier was as follows: for 1966 through 1979 cars, the risk was between 3.7 and 5.1; for 1984 cars, 2.6; and for 1990 cars, 4.1.

Conclusions: The results suggest that the lesser mass effect observed for mid-1980s cars occurred because improved crashworthiness features appeared in small cars earlier than in large cars. As all cars are redesigned, the relationship between risk and mass can be expected to approach that observed earlier in pre-1980 cars. If so, future fatality increases from fuel economy increases will be greater than estimated on the basis of mid-1980 data.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Traffic / mortality*
  • Automobiles*
  • Humans
  • United States / epidemiology