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Don't blame high-performance cars alone for their high accident and death rates

While high-performance cars might have higher accident death rates than other vehicles, automakers, car enthusiasts and consumer groups all agree it’s wrong to lay the blame solely on the cars themselves. 

"People drive the Corvette differently than they would drive a Volvo and it tends to be a different type of driver," says Daniel Pund, of Car and Driver magazine. "There's nothing inherently unsafe about the Corvette."

While he concedes the Corvette produces a lot of power, and the rear-wheel drive of the 'Vette is less common among cars today, Pund insists sports cars aren't to blame for their high accident death rates.

"The Firebirds and Camaros have done very well in crash tests," says Pund. "Combined with high death rates, what that statistic tells you is how people handle those cars."

David Champion, director of the Automotive Testing Division at Consumers Union, agrees. "The person behind the wheel has a lot to do with the death rates," says Champion. Young males, propelled by their testosterone, are the ones most likely to die in a car crash, says Champion.

"Drivers need to rein in their enthusiasm and drive within the level of their experience."

"Look at sports cars as opposed to minivans. Minivans tend to be driven by some of the safest drivers out there," says Champion. "Minivan drivers tend not to speed, they tend not to drive at night after drinking heavily, and the death rates are much lower than sports cars."

"Enzo Ferrari once said that a Ferrari owner is not necessarily a Ferrari driver, and the same is true for Corvettes," says Pund. "The drivers have the ultimate responsibility."

Ford, which builds the Mustang, is reluctant to put so much of the blame on drivers. "We would never want to blame the victim for being involved in a fatal crash," says Sara Tatchio, a safety communications manager at Ford. Tatchio does concede sports cars handle very differently from sedans.

According to Pund, it all comes down to restraint and training.

"Drivers need to rein in their enthusiasm and drive within the level of their experience," says Pund. "They also need to choose the places for gratuitous displays of power, or simply choose not to do it."

High-performance car-driving schools can teach drivers the tricks to handling a sports car and can help drivers avoid the kinds of spectacular accidents and fatal crashes to which sports car drivers can be prone, says Pund.

"Any sports car is relatively safe if driven safely," says Champion.

Auto makers put safety first

We go to every effort to make all of our vehicles, including the Mustang, as safe as possible," says Tatchio of Ford.

Terry Rhadigan is a manager of safety communications for General Motors, parent of both Chevrolet and Pontiac.  Rhadigan ardently disagrees the Camaro, Corvette, and Firebird deserve the label of "deadliest cars of all time."

"Our approach to motor vehicle safety is multifaceted and includes features that help our customers avoid crashes, and also help protect them in the event of a collision," says Rhadigan. "Daytime running lamps, antilock brakes, and traction control help in avoiding collisions; while dual front air bags, a steel safety cage, and front and rear crush zones offer protection in a crash." Rhadigan says these features are "designed and engineered to provide our customers with world-class performance and safety."

But what about the older models?

According to both Consumers Union and Car and Driver, the Corvette has always been in a class of its own, even compared to the much-maligned Corvair and Pinto.

"The Corvair was not a particularly high-performance car."

According to Champion, while both the Pinto and Corvair had safety problems, it is still the volatile mix of high performance and inexperienced drivers that is the most dangerous.

The Pinto's gas tank problems only came about when the car was rear-ended.  Although an exploding gas-tank could be horrific, it was an infrequent type of accident, says Champion.

Champion says the Corvair's tricky handling made it a car in which people could get themselves into trouble, but it didn't really qualify as a sports car.

"The Corvair was not a particularly high-performance car," agrees Pund. "It was a car for connoisseurs, but it was no Corvette."

Earlier, in the 1950s and '60s, Corvettes and other domestic muscle cars faced competition from Alfa Romeos and Jaguars, but according to Champion, the imports attracted safer drivers.

"Imported sports cars tend to be more expensive, and thus less affordable by young males," says Champion. "You're more likely to find 35- to 40-year-olds driving imported sports cars, then and now."

That is why the BMWs and Porsches don't have the high driver death rates of the domestic sports cars, says Champion.

Through the 1970s the Corvette remained the premier domestic sports car with much of its competition coming from the Camaro, Firebird, and Mustang, but emissions standards and fuel crises took a toll on their performance.

"Even the Corvette was pretty weak in the '70s," says Pund.

Kim Hazelbaker of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) also lays much of the responsibility for the high death rates at the feet of the drivers.

New safety standards and innovations have made today's cars much safer than their classic cousins, but some models still stand out above the rest.

"The drivers that are attracted to domestic sports cars tend to get in over their heads and wind up in a high-speed crash, perhaps testosterone- and alcohol-fueled," says Hazelbaker. "The most dangerous cars for the drivers are the vehicles that are overly attractive to young males, and powerful enough to get them into trouble."

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