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Ford F-350

Safest for passengers: Ford F-350
Photo credit: Ford

Even people who know very little about the laws of physics will find few surprises on the 2014 edition of the best and worst cars for preventing passenger injuries, just released by

The 10 best cars for preventing passenger injuries are not cars at all, but large, costly trucks and sport-utility vehicles like the Ford F-350 and Cadillac Escalade.

The 10 worst cars for preventing passenger injuries fall into precisely the opposite category:  small, lightweight cars that stress low prices and fuel economy. Dominating this list are subcompacts like Toyota’s Yaris, Fiat’s 500, Nissan’s Versa and Chevrolet’s Spark. The list also includes two of the best-selling midsize sedans.

Higher claims for injuries result in higher car insurance rates. analyzed insurance rates for Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and Medical Payments (MedPay) – the coverage that pays for injuries to your passengers in a crash. Using insurance rates for more than 750 vehicles in our annual car insurance comparison study, we identified the vehicles with the lowest and highest costs for PIP and MedPay coverage.

Size matters most

Best vehicles for protecting passengers from injuries

  1. Ford F-350
  2. GMC Sierra 2500
  3. Porsche Cayenne
  4. Ford F-250
  5. GMC Yukon
  6. Volvo XC90
  7. Ram 1500
  8. Chevrolet Silverado
  9. Cadillac Escalade
  10. BMW X1

Worst vehicles for protecting passengers from injuries

  1. Toyota Yaris
  2. Fiat 500
  3. Toyota Corolla
  4. Mitsubishi Lancer
  5. Nissan Versa
  6. Kia Forte
  7. Nissan Altima
  8. Ford Focus
  9. Chevrolet Spark
  10. Toyota Camry

Source: See the methodology of our annual car insurance rates study.

Vehicle size and weight affect injury risk substantially, says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Heavier vehicles more effectively protect passengers, he says. In a head-on crash between a lighter and heavier vehicle, the heavier vehicle will drive the lighter one backwards, increasing the forces on the occupants in the light vehicle and reducing forces on the occupants in the heavier one.

The Ford F-350 weighs 3 tons, nearly three times what a Toyota Yaris weighs.

In crashes with roadside objects, such as trees or poles, it’s more likely that a heavier vehicle will be able to move the object, reducing the severity of the crash for the occupants.

In addition, larger vehicles have more “crush space” in the front end, which helps vehicles keep the forces of the crash away from the seating area. More crush space means it takes longer for the vehicle to come to a complete stop in the crash. This helps an occupant ride down the crash over a longer period, reducing the severity of the impact on the body.

Asked which vehicle he would buy, Rader says, “We can’t single out one vehicle as being the safest. If safety is a priority, consumers should avoid the smallest, lightest cars available. It’s better to start with midsize or larger models with good crash test-ratings from the Institute and the federal government.”

Why the price tag matters

Toyota Yaris

Least safe for passengers: Toyota Yaris
Photo credit: Toyota

Pete Leiss, head of the crash practice at Lancaster, Pa.-based Robson Forensic, agrees that larger vehicles provide better protection against passenger injuries. “It’s not just the size, but also that there’s more room between the occupants and what they will interact with,” says Leiss, whose company specializes in expert witness services in courts of law.

In addition to heavier vehicles, higher-priced luxury cars offer the most protection to the passengers riding inside them, according to Leiss. “We see a lot fewer injuries when you start talking about European luxury cars,” he says.

“That group of vehicles typically includes those to which newer safety features are first applied. That goes back to the introduction of air bags and encompasses the major safety developments since the 1980s, including electronic stability control, pre-tensioned seatbelts, forward collision warnings and also basics like strong safety cages around the vehicle’s occupants.”

These European luxury manufacturers seem to be the carmakers that pay the most attention not just to passing mandated government crash-safety tests, but also to conducting their own research into other types of crash modes that cause injury and death, he says. “They do the research, and consequently design their vehicles to help prevent those injuries and deaths,” he reports.

The point he makes is borne out by the inclusion of the Porsche Cayenne, Volvo XC90 and BMW X1 on the list, he argues. “None of those three vehicles are the size or the mass of the Escalade,” he adds. “Yet we see them ranked in the top 10 for preventing injury.”

The most injuries

Vehicles associated with the greatest number of injuries are in general compact cars and midsize cars, sometimes referred to as C and D Class cars.

With these C and D Class automobiles, “there’s a lot more pressure on price, and thinner profit margins,” Leiss says. “Unfortunately, the result is it becomes more difficult to make the business case that they will have the side airbags you see in larger vehicles. Safety takes a backseat to profits.”

In an accident between a 3,000-pound car and a 5,000-pound car, the larger car “is going to win,” Leiss says. That means the smaller car starts out at a disadvantage, and then is further disadvantaged by being equipped with comparatively fewer safety features than found on larger cars.

The one surprise for Leiss on the worst cars for preventing injuries list is the Toyota Camry. “The Camry is one of the best-selling vehicles in the overall vehicle market, typically No. 1 or 2 in sales of sedans,” Leiss says. “The other vehicles in that list are smaller vehicles, which from a physics standpoint are at a disadvantage in collisions with other vehicles. But the Camry is a midsize, which typically weighs 500 to 700 pounds more than subcompact and compact vehicles, with more room between occupant and a hard surface.”

The more hopeful news for those preferring small vehicles is that the once yawning gap between large and small vehicle safety features has closed dramatically in recent years, according to Leiss. “Part of what we see is technology filtering down from larger to smaller cars,” he adds. “What we’ve been seeing the last few years is that smaller cars are catching up. You see smaller cars with, for instance, 10 air bags, and strong safety cages.”