Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Most Vulnerable More Likely to Drive Vehicles with Less Safety Features

August 27, 2020
Lucy and Miles Metzger
Learning to Drive: Lucy and Miles Metzger

As a member of a three-generation household, I’m in a unique position of searching for vehicles for both my teenage twins and my in-laws. My twins have their learner’s permits and are eagerly practicing to get their licenses. My in-laws--both in their 70s--would like to replace their older minivan with a newer vehicle that is easier to drive. Like many families, cost is an important concern for us, but safety is paramount. Research I recently conducted with colleagues from CIRP, Brown University School of Public Health, and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center published today in Traffic Injury Prevention will help to inform my car buying decisions.

As a mother of teenagers and a traffic safety researcher, I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who share my concerns about not only how to best teach our teens safe driving behaviors, but also how to best protect them if involved in a crash. We also know that teens are not alone in being at greater risk of crash involvement and having poor crash outcomes; drivers age 65 and over and drivers from lower-income neighborhoods are disproportionally impacted as well.

Fatal crash and survey studies have related these poorer crash outcomes to evidence that these populations are driving vehicles that are older and have fewer safety features. However, this research has been limited to certain types of drivers, and no study has ever described vehicle safety characteristics among the general population of drivers until now. We described the safety of vehicles driven by a statewide population of drivers of different ages and income levels using police-reported crash data from the New Jersey Safety and Health Outcomes Data Warehouse (NJ-SHO) and used NHTSA’s Product Information Catalog and Vehicle Listing platform to decode the VIN of each crash-involved vehicle to gather more information about the safety features of each driver’s vehicle.

What We Found

Our study showed that the youngest and oldest drivers were more likely than middle-aged drivers to have vehicles that were older, did not have electronic stability control (ESC), and were not equipped with side or curtain airbags. Additionally, across all age groups drivers from higher-income neighborhoods were in newer and safer vehicles compared with those from lower-income neighborhoods. For example, young drivers living in the lowest-income neighborhoods drove vehicles that were on average almost twice as old as young drivers living in the highest-income neighborhoods.

These findings highlight important disparities in vehicle safety features among those drivers most likely to be involved with or die in a crash: teens, older adults, and those from lower-income neighborhoods. Given their higher crash risk, these drivers could benefit from being in safer vehicles that would be more likely to prevent or reduce injuries sustained in a crash.

Ensuring teens, older adults, and those living in lower-income neighborhoods are in the safest cars they can afford should be explored as an effective public health safety approach.The good news is that vehicle safety is not exclusively found in new and expensive vehicles.TeenDriverSource.org offers the latest information on choosing safer used vehicles with a range of price points (including some for less than $7,000).

Read the press release.

Read the study abstract.

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