How Much Does Size Matter in a Car Crash?

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The compact car and SUV segments are among the most active segments in the car market right now. With gas prices fluctuating wildly, the trend is to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles - which usually means smaller vehicles. Additionally, small cars tend to be easier to control, more agile and sporty, and easier to park.

One raging question about compact vehicles is related to their safety. In a smaller car, are you as safe as you would be in a larger vehicle? Are you more likely to be injured or killed in a car crash when compared to the occupants of a larger car or truck? Does size really matter in a car crash?

Bigger is better

If you want a simple answer, then yes, larger vehicles are safer - but size doesn’t make as much of an impact (pun intended) as you may think. Here’s an explanation:

Mass is a factor. Imagine in the sixties and seventies when vehicles were as big as boats. Every vehicle was made with reinforced steel, and the name of the game was to build bigger and stronger. In a collision, the intention was to be the bigger of the involved parties so your vehicle’s weight would keep you safer. If a large car or truck hit a small sedan, it could push the sedan all over the road, affecting the smaller car much more than the larger car. There was a huge space between the front bumper and the cabin, meaning the impact wouldn’t reach the passengers as quickly as it would in a small car.

The same rings true in today’s car market, yet to a much lesser extent. Modern vehicles are all built with safety in mind, including crash standards. Where a truck could have virtually run over a small car in previous decades, now they are mandated to keep their impact point at a relatable height to a small car. Both have crumple zones to absorb some of the collision, and both have airbags and supplemental restraint systems to cushion the blow. Compared to previous generations, small cars have made leaps and bounds in safety.

Mass still factors in, though, because the larger vehicle can still push the smaller car around on the road. That can mean subsequent accidents or injury from other extenuating circumstances, but by and large, the accident itself will be less in favor of the larger vehicle than it used to be.

Vehicle design is influential

If you compare crashes between inequal vehicles from the past decade and the sixties, you’ll find that the injury rates are phenomenally reduced now. Largely, that’s due to vehicle design. There are plenty of systems used today that are meant not only to reduce injury, but also to avoid collisions in the first place.

Crumple zones. Crumple zones are designed into every modern vehicle as a way of saving lives from impact trauma. The theory is that when a vehicle absorbs the energy before it reaches the passenger compartment, the occupants experience less trauma and injury. This theory has been thoroughly tested and holds up to scrutiny.

The frame rails, hood, suspension, firewall, and even the windshield provide structural integrity during normal driving, but on an impact they collapse in a controlled manner to absorb kinetic energy and reduce the effects felt inside the car.

Both small cars and large cars have crumple zones built in now, narrowing the gap between the safety of a large vehicle and a small one.

High-strength materials. Where the focus in older cars was to build parts thick and sturdy, the modern focus is to build lightweight parts that are engineered to be strong and rigid. The use of high-strength materials is paramount to a vehicle’s structural integrity, yet the engineered bracing allows for crumple zones to be designed into the components for protection in an impact.

The same high-strength materials are used in both small vehicles and large ones, again narrowing the disparity in vehicle safety.

Safety systems. A handful of safety components have become almost standard equipment across the board, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS) and traction control. Airbags are standard equipment on all passenger vehicles, as well as seat belts. With the safety components and their usage becoming regulated and enforced, the injuries seen in a collision have been greatly reduced.

With safety systems taken into account, the gap between large vehicle and small vehicle safety is even more narrow.

Vehicle control. Smaller vehicles have an edge over large cars and trucks - in most cases, this advantage is in their handling and control. Small vehicles are typically easier to control with more nimble handling, sporty suspension, and better traction that can greatly assist a small car to avoid a collision in the first place. A larger vehicle will have a much more difficult time changing their direction if a crash is impending than a smaller vehicle.

If you’re looking for a simple answer, larger vehicles are still safer - but the gap is much smaller now compared to the disparity just a few decades ago. The larger mass can still push the smaller mass around, but with similar systems and designs, and the edge in vehicle control going to the small cars, the size of vehicle means less now than it ever has.

Safety is mainly in the driver’s control. Responsible, attentive driving will prevent more collisions and keep occupants safer than relying on your vehicle to keep you safe during an accident.


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Robert

19 years of experience
715 reviews
Robert
19 years of experience
Chevrolet Impala - ABS Light is on - Golden, Colorado
Robert was personable and professional. He did a fantastic job with the car. 10/10 would recommend!
GMC Yukon - ABS Light is on - Denver, Colorado
Robert was prompt, friendly and I felt very confident in his expertise. Being new to Denver, I will definitely use him for my future auto needs. Plus, I loved visiting with his canine companion. 

Diego

20 years of experience
541 reviews
Diego
20 years of experience
Ford Mustang - ABS Light is on - Peoria, Arizona
Diego is awesome. Shows up and does his work. Truthful and down to earth. Third time I have had him service my vehicles. Definitely will call on him again for future repairs.
Chevrolet Astro - ABS Light is on - Tempe, Arizona
Very polite, knowledgeable and efficient. Keeps you informed and asks before doing work that wasn’t quoted so no surprises.

Matthew

32 years of experience
783 reviews
Matthew
32 years of experience
Nissan Xterra - ABS Light is on - Norfolk, Virginia
Matt was very knowledge and friendly. He knew what he was doing when troubleshooting an ABS light on my old Xterra. He had to do a few different things to make sure he was getting the correct information and was very fast at getting it done. Even pointed out something I'd have to look into later and also said that my engine compartment looked pretty good compared to some others. Found this service on accident last night while Googling for local shop... I would definitely recommend and use again!
Honda Accord - ABS Light is on Inspection - Norfolk, Virginia
He arrived right on time, and started and finished in a timely manner. Once he was done working he gave me more information about the problems my car was having than I expected. This was my first time having work done and it went very smoothly.

Peter

24 years of experience
297 reviews
Peter
24 years of experience
Toyota Camry - ABS Light is on - Pasadena, California
Peter did an excellent job. My 2000 Toyota Camry has had an ABS warning light for several months and the solution suggested by Pep Boys (after doing a $500 rotor/pad job) was to have Toyota dealer install a new ABS controller which is a $2000 job. Peter performed a difficult (because of the age of the car) diagnostic procedure which confirmed that the ABS controller needed to be replaced but then guided me on getting a used unit from Ebay for $40 and then spend $100 for a mechanic to do an easy installation. I think the basic premise of YourMechanic of sending a mechanic to your home is a very good idea especially for people who are very busy and value the time to take their car to a repair garage. I see very polarized reviews on the web site - either very good or very poor. Some of the complaints are about the mechanic and some are about the administration. In my younger days I worked as a garage mechanic and know there ares some cased where the mechanics is blamed for problems that he/she has no fault with - just unfortunate circumstances. Bottom line, Peter Izaquirre knows his business and was a pleasure to deal with.
Toyota Tacoma - ABS Light is on - Northridge, California
Very knowledgeable, punctual , and friendly guy . Very thorough and did not rush to diagnose my problem he probably spent a good 1 and a half hours going through every scenario. And to top it off I didnt have to lose time at work because he came to my job sit .

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