NHTSA report finds newer cars to be safer than older ones

Automakers often tout the array of safety vehicles available in their newer models, ranging from improved vehicle design to automatic braking if a vehicle's sensor detects a hazard before the driver does. A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that these features have been successful, as drivers and passengers of older vehicles are more likely to suffer serious injuries or be fatally wounded in crashes.

The NHTSA analysis found that among all passenger vehicle occupants involved in a fatal crash, the proportion who were fatally injured increased steadily with the vehicle's age. A greater proportion of vehicle occupants were also fatally injured in older vehicles.

"We encourage car buyers to select vehicles that meet their individual lifestyle, budget, and transportation needs with the added assurance that they are making an investment in safety," said Heidi King, deputy administrator of the NHTSA.

To determine the effect of vehicle age on crash survivability, the NHTSA looked at data from its Fatality Analysis Reporting System between 2012 and 2016, the most recent years available. This system is a census of fatal crashes in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The database includes incidents that occurred on a public roadway and resulted in a fatality within 30 days of the crash.

The analysis found that drivers and passengers involved in crashes that resulted in a death were significantly more likely to be fatally injured if their vehicle was older. Of the 46,195 occupants of zero- to three-year-old vehicles involved in fatal crashes, 27 percent were killed. This share rose to 33 percent of occupants in vehicles that were four to seven years old, 37 percent of those in vehicles eight to 11 years old, 41 percent of those in vehicles ages 12 to 14 years old, and 44 percent of those in vehicles ages 15 to 17 years old. Half of the 34,402 occupants of vehicles that were 18 years old or older who were involved in a fatal crash between 2012 and 2016 were killed.

A similar trend was observed based on the vehicle's model year. Fifty-five percent of the 2,101 occupants of model year 1984 vehicles or older were killed when involved in a fatal crash, along with 53 percent of the 10,387 occupants of vehicles with model years between 1985 and 1992. The share fell to 26 percent for the 26,332 occupants of model year 2013 to 2017 vehicles involved in a fatal crash.

The NHTSA says the study is limited in its scope, since it only looks at the relationship between vehicle age and fatalities. It suggests that future studies could incorporate other factors, such as the age of the vehicle occupants and the prevalence of seat belt use.

A similar NHTSA study in 2013 also concluded that drivers and passengers were more likely to be killed in fatal crashes involving older vehicles. That analysis, looking at fatal crashes between 2005 and 2011, concluded that an occupant of a vehicle that was 18 years old or older was 71 percent more likely to be fatally injured in a serious crash than an occupant of a vehicle that was three years old or newer.

The previous study also did not attempt to isolate any other factors contributing to crash fatalities, including improvements in child seat design and increased usage of seat belts. The report said the reduction in fatalities in newer vehicles was "assumed to be due to many improvements in vehicle design," including electronic stability control, stronger roof crush strength, antilock brake systems, traction control, and active safety systems such as lane departure and forward collision warnings.

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