Muscle Cars, Small Cars Both Tend toward High Driver Death Rates

  • We’ve long heard that smaller vehicles are more dangerous for occupants in a crash, and IIHS’s latest driver death rate study again confirms this fact.
  • But this time, IIHS did something a bit different. It also looked at “other driver” deaths, or the fatality rate of drivers in vehicles hit by a specific model. Through this lens, muscle cars jumped out as some of the deadliest on our roads.
  • The IIHS’s working theory is that muscle-car drivers are inclined to drive more aggressively, which is why these vehicles are involved in more deaths than similarly powerful luxury vehicles.

Anyone can drive a dangerous car in a safe manner or a safe car recklessly. But the data shows that certain vehicles somehow inspire drivers to take more risks, causing higher death rates. A new study reveals two types of vehicles with high driver death rates: muscle cars and small vehicles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) just released its latest analysis of driver deaths by make and model, as reported in the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System. IIHS has conducted this data survey roughly every three years since 1989, with this most recent report looking at fatalities from 2018 to 2021 in 2020 model vehicles and “earlier models with the same designs and features.” In some cases, that includes vehicles back to the 2017 model year. IIHS used this large sample size to analyze driver deaths in two categories. First is the death rate in vehicles with at least 100,000 registered vehicle years of exposure from 2018 to 2021. Second, models that had at least 20 deaths.

IIHS focuses on driver deaths in these triennial surveys for a reason: it allows for an apples-to-apples comparison because “all vehicles on the road have drivers, but not all of them have passengers or the same number of passengers,” IIHS said in its release. Driver death rates are another way to understand a vehicle’s real-world safety capabilities alongside crash tests and ratings.

Cars with Highest Driver Death Rates

So, which models are the most dangerous? In previous data surveys, IIHS was—unsurprisingly—able to find evidence of the greater dangers of small vehicles. But for the new 2020 model year study, six of the 21 vehicles with the highest driver death rates are muscle cars, including Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Charger, and Ford Mustang variants.

IIHS included these muscle cars in its rankings this time because of a change in the definition of “driver deaths.” Previously, IIHS only looked at whether a driver of a car involved in a crash had been killed. For its latest analysis, IIHS also factored in the number of drivers in other vehicles killed in crashes. In other words, in a hypothetical crash between a Charger and a Honda Fit where the Fit driver died, that fatality would be attributed to the Fit in previous IIHS studies, furthering the “small cars are more dangerous” message. In the new study, the death would also be connected to the Charger using this “other driver” metric.

iihs data on large car fatalities 2020

Deaths per million registered vehicle years.


Once IIHS started looking at the data this way, something interesting appeared.
“We typically find that smaller vehicles have high driver death rates because they don’t provide as much protection, especially in crashes with larger, heavier SUVs and pickups,” IIHS president David Harkey shared the organization’s theory that “The muscle cars on this list highlight that a vehicle’s image and how it is marketed can also contribute to crash risk.”

When IIHS noticed that muscle cars ranked poorly in “other-driver deaths,” it tried to understand why by comparing them to other vehicles with similar features (like horsepower and safety technologies) and found many similarities between muscle cars and luxury vehicles. There’s also a key difference: luxury cars are sold with the promise of “ease and comfort,” IIHS said, while muscle cars are sold with a profile that alludes to aggressive driving. IIHS’s theory is that the way people think of a muscle car can contribute to actual, on-road deaths.

A Few Vehicles Reported Zero Deaths

Here are some highlights from the IIHS’s calculations of deaths per million registered vehicle years. Using the traditional “Did the driver of a car die in a crash?” framing, small cars dominated the list, with the Mitsubishi Mirage taking the top two spots. The Mirage G4 had 205 deaths, while the Mirage hatchback had 183. On the safe end of the spectrum, there were four models with zero driver deaths: BMW X3 4WD, Lexus ES350, Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan 4WD, and the Nissan Pathfinder 2WD.

The top four vehicles in the other-driver list were large pickups (Ram 3500 Crew Cab long bed 4WD, Ford F-350 Crew Cab 4WD and Ram 2500 Mega Cab 4WD) along with the Dodge Charger Hemi 2WD. Muscle cars including the Charger and Challenger appear on both lists, indicating they can be dangerous to both their drivers and others on the road.

“Using that lens, the story of big and small is partially reversed, illustrating the danger that large vehicles pose to other road users,” IIHS said. “But three Dodge muscle cars with excessively high driver death rates also rank among the worst performers when it comes to other-driver deaths, suggesting these vehicles are driven in an aggressive manner.”

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Contributing Editor

Sebastian Blanco has been writing about electric vehicles, hybrids, and hydrogen cars since 2006. His articles and car reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Automotive News, Reuters, SAE, Autoblog, InsideEVs,, Car Talk, and other outlets. His first green-car media event was the launch of the Tesla Roadster, and since then he has been tracking the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles and discovering the new technology’s importance not just for the auto industry, but for the world as a whole. Throw in the recent shift to autonomous vehicles, and there are more interesting changes happening now than most people can wrap their heads around. You can find him on Twitter or, on good days, behind the wheel of a new EV.