Modern vehicles are jam packed with safety features. The 2014 Chevrolet Spark has 10 airbags, as standard, in their tiny little city car. Technologies like lane-keep assist and blind spot monitoring exist to help prevent an accident. When an accident happens, other engineering features of the vehicle entry play to help protect the occupants. New vehicles are tested all the time from agencies like the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) on their crashworthiness. The IIHS has been testing vehicles for over 50 years, and have compiled a massive data of crash data. Some people believe that despite all of this new safety technology, older cars are safer than new cars in an accident. We take a look at the IIHS data and analyze the information to see if that theory holds merit.

Crash Physics


In order to better understand how a crash test works, it is important to understand what a car crash involves when it comes to physics. High school physics teacher, Griff Jones, stars in the video below explaining exactly what happens in a car crash. It is extremely informative and explained in a way that it easy to understand, even if you didn’t like physics in high school!

Modern vehicles are designed to absorb the force of the impact around the driver. In extreme situations, the entire vehicle may be completely crumpled but the driver’s cabin is still intact. In a low speed impact, a new vehicle may crumple more than an old one, but that is what it is designed to do.

Now that know what happens in an accident, let’s take a look at what happens when a new vehicle is crashed into an old one.

New vs. Old Crash Test

For the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety’s 50th anniversary, they performed a crash test of a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. The performed the test to show how much safer a person is in a brand new car over an older car. As you can see in the video, the driver of the Bel Air’s head is thrown all around during the accident. If that was a real person and survived, they would clearly have some serious injuries. On the other hand, the driver of the Malibu’s head hit the airbag as expected. The driver’s area is held intact, the rest of the car crumpled like it was designed to do. The driver of the Malibu would have likely walked away with only minor injuries.

From this video, it is obvious that the driver in the Bel Air would not have done as well as the driver of the Malibu. This video would suggest that a new vehicle is safer than an old one, but let’s take a look at the statistics to see if they support that claim.

Fatal Crash Statistics


IIHS data of deaths and deaths per 100,000 people since 1975.

The IIHS has been keeping track of vehicle fatality rates since 1975. In that year, 44,525 people were fatally injured in motor vehicle accidents. Over the years that number has floated around that number, until 2008-2009 where the numbers dropped significantly. In 2012, the last year recorded, there were only 33,561 fatal car crashes in the United States. Even as the population of the United States has risen since then, with more drivers on the road, the death toll still continues to drop.


IIHS data on accidents per million miles driven.

Typically, the more someone drives, the higher the risk that they are involved in a motor vehicle accident. Americans logged almost 3 trillion miles during 2012, compared to the 1.3 trillion in 1975. Even though Americans are driving more than ever, the fatalities continue to decline. Not only are Americans driving more, but they are driving more safely in safer vehicles.


Child fatalities from 1975-2012 compiled from IIHS data.

Children are significantly safer today than they were in 1975. Child safety seat technology has improved, as well as the laws that require their use. Deaths for all children aged less than 19 years old was just 3,775 in 2012, compared to 12,391 in 1975. The legal age to drive in the United States is 16, so presumably some of these deaths were children driving. The data supports that, with only 952 children less than 13 years old dying in 2012, and 2,823 aged 13-19 dying the same year.


Based on IIHS data, the number of children under 13 years of age who died since 1975.

Over 3,500 children aged less than 13 were killed in 1975, and less than 1,000 were killed in 2012. That is a staggering example of how much safer vehicles are, and the car seats that hold them in place. As you can see, all of the data suggests that new vehicles are significantly safer from vehicles not that long ago.

Small Car vs. Big Car

Ultimately, the laws of physics cannot be defeated. Even though modern cars are significantly safer than cars of old, if a modern car today is in an accident with a much larger vehicle, the larger vehicle will have the advantage. The IIHS addresses this concern with this video.

The vehicles they tested all had a Good rating, which is the highest possible. From this video, especially the Toyota Camry against the Toyota Yaris, a small car is simply not as safe as a larger counterpart from the same brand. IIHS contends that to have a safe vehicle that also achieves good fuel economy, a vehicle like the Camry Hybrid or Fusion Hybrid are smarter choices than a microcar. The IIHS does not take price into consideration into their testing and recommendations, but fuel economy is not the only reason why someone would purchase a microcar. Price is always a consideration, and a Toyota Yaris is simply less expensive than a Toyota Camry Hybrid.


2013 Ford Fusion Crash Test (Photo: IIHS)

Physics is physics, but despite the big car versus small car issue, modern vehicles of any size are significantly safer than vehicles of not that long ago. Modern cars are designed to crumple in a crash, dissipating the energy from the collision around the driver’s area, protecting the driver inside. Ultimately, if in an accident, we would rather have a completely smashed up vehicle that we can walk away from rather than a lightly damaged vehicle that we cannot.