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Is your car too small to be safe?

Insurance stats reveal danger of small carsNew data suggest that the biggest menaces on the road aren't oversized SUVs, but tiny cars like the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent. Several small cars are among the 10 makes and models found to be the most dangerous to other drivers on the road, but the data may not be as disturbing to small-car owners as it initially appears.

The new data come from "Insurance losses by make and model," a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute. The institutes analyzed claims data for model years 2009 through 2011 to determine which cars are involved in the most insurance claims.

Categories considered by the organizations include personal injury protection (injury to drivers and their passengers), bodily injury liability (injuries to other cars' drivers and their passengers) and collisions. Models were ranked by how frequently they were involved in such claims.

Sports car stats hide the truth

As one might expect, many of the cars with the lowest rates of personal injury claims are large vehicles like the Chevy Silverado and the Land Rover Range Rover, which presumably provide good protection to drivers and passengers in the event of a crash.

But less easily explained are the two cars with the lowest rates of personal injury claims. Drivers of the Porsche 911 are 68 percent less likely than average to have a personal injury claim. Drivers of the Chevrolet Corvette are 62 percent less likely.

Such midsized cars are comparatively smaller than the hulking pickups and SUVs that populate the rest of the list, so it's unlikely that they would provide even greater protection in crashes. And it's also hard to believe that people driving sports cars are more careful drivers than the general population. If anything, you'd expect them to drive faster than the average car owner.

Indeed, the presence of pricey sports cars at the top of the “low injury claims” list seems to be yet another statistical oddity owing to the unusual usage patterns of such vehicles.

"We measure claim counts over insured vehicle years," explains Matt Moore, vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute. "But if you think about trophy car like Corvettes, they tend to be owned by people with multiple vehicles, and they tend to be garaged more often."

So personal injury claims per vehicle are relatively low for sports cars, but not because those cars are safer in a crash or because their operators are safe drivers. Rather, they simply spend a lot less time on the road. Sorry speedsters, you don’t really have a safer car going for you.

The Chevy Silverado 2500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee rank among safest to their own drivers and passengers. (The vehicles with the lowest level of PIP claims are the Porsche 911 2-door and Chevrolet Corvette 2-door. The Porsche, for example, is 68 percent less likely to have a PIP claim than the average vehicle. Isn't that odd? See sidebar at left.) The rest of the top 10 also are larger cars.

By contrast, the Toyota Yaris, Suzuki SX4, Chevrolet Aveo and other small or mini sized cars the bulk of the top 10 list of vehicles with the most claims for personal injury claims.

So word to the wise: The bigger the car, the less likely you are to get injured while driving it.

"The smaller the vehicle you're in, the more likely you are to hit something larger than you," explains Matt Moore, vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute. "And if you do, you're more likely to be injured."

More trouble with small cars

What's not easily explained, though, is that smaller cars (like the Rio and Accent) likewise dominate the "bodily injury liability" category. Seven of the 10 models with the highest likelihood of causing injury to passengers in another vehicle are small or mini sized.

So if the smaller car in a collision is more likely to get the worst of things, why do the data suggest the opposite -- that you're sometimes more likely to hurt someone when you're behind the wheel of a little car?

One possibility is simply that people are using smaller cars differently than they do larger ones. For instance, people may tend to drive faster in small cars. Or, it may be the drivers themselves: Small cars tend to be chosen by younger, inexperienced drivers who will have high crash rates no matter what car they're in.

Moore suggests another possibility: "Bodily injury pays for injuries caused to pedestrians as well as [people in] vehicles," he notes. "The smaller the car is, the more likely the vehicle is owned and operated in an urban area."

And in urban areas, you're more likely to be dealing with pedestrians. Compare car insurance rates for urban and rural areas, and you'll likely see this increased danger reflected in the premiums (among other urban risk factors).

One thing is for sure: The cars most likely to do damage to someone else's vehicle or property tend to be larger pickups and SUVs, as you might expect. They have the highest levels of property damage liability claims. The top offenders are the Dodge Ram, Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota Tundra.

The worst cars for Personal Injury Protection  claims

2009-2011 models with the highest claim frequencies for personal injury protection:

Toyota Yaris, mini four-door car: 201

Suzuki SX4, small four-door car: 187

Chevrolet Aveo, mini four-door car: 183

Mitsubishi Galant, midsize four-door car: 179

Kia Rio Mini, four-door car: 175

Hyundai Accent, mini four-door car: 173

Nissan Versa, small four-door car: 173

Dodge Avenger, midsize four-door car: 167

Nissan Sentra, small four-door car: 162

Chevrolet Aveo, mini station wagons/minivan: 157

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