Is it safe to drive a compact car?

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By Allison Cintins  |   Last updated on January 27th, 2023 at 3:36 pm

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When you’re thinking of buying a car, nothing may be more reliable than a compact. They are affordable, great on gas, stylish, and depending on the make and model, could be tried-and-true in performance. Popular models include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Hyundai Elantra. This class of cars, one step above subcompact vehicles and one step below mid-size cars, seats up to four passengers comfortably, though for car buyers on the market, that may not be enough. In terms of choices, light trucks like sports utility vehicles (SUVs), crossovers, pickups, and minivans now account for over 75 percent of new vehicle sales, a trend that began almost 20 years ago. But on a road with increasing numbers of larger vehicles, is it safe to drive a compact car?

The advantages of a compact car

Lower cost. One of the most appealing factors of a small car is its price. If you can’t afford what you really want in a first car, if you are a struggling college student, a conscientious buyer or just looking for an additional, low-cost family vehicle, the affordability of a compact car has always been a great selling point.

Fuel economy. Because there isn’t a lot of power needed to get these small, compact vehicles moving, you get more miles per gallon and, therefore, better fuel economy, which may be a huge savings for most people. This, along with the low purchase price of a compact vehicle, make it a very economical option for many car buyers.

Easier to drive and park. Smaller vehicles are easier to maneuver on the road in steering and in some parking situations, such as parallel parking, reverse parking or in areas where parking is tight. The compact nature of these vehicles makes them easy and ideal for narrow roads, such as those found in many cities and towns in the U.S.

Vehicle features. Many of today’s compact cars come with features that were previously found in expensive cars, like GPS navigation, keyless entry, power locks and windows, and top-of- the-line sound systems. Technological advancements add appeal to any car, including many compact cars.

The safety of small cars

In theory, compact cars are seen favorably in terms of safety because of their multitude of safety features, many of which come standard in car models. These features include front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS), LED headlamps, blind spot monitoring, seatbelt and anchoring advancements for car seats, brake assist, and backup cameras. In addition, many popular compact models perform well in safety and crash test ratings.

However, newer SUVs also feature advanced safety features that have become standard for many models, and in the past few decades, have become lighter and more car-like as a vehicle.  They may even feature safety options smaller vehicles would not have room for, such as backseat air bags. Pickup trucks are less likely to have advanced safety features, but in terms of safety measures, SUVs have been getting closer to those features already enabled in compact cars.

The dangers of compact cars

Even with the safety features that come standard with many compact vehicles and their satisfactory performance in safety tests, drivers and passengers of these vehicles face higher fatalities and more severe injuries in collisions with bigger cars.

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), small cars and minicars accounted for 15 of the 20 models with the highest death rates for model year 2017. In contrast, half of the 20 models with the lowest death rate were luxury SUVs. Smaller vehicles, it has been stated, receive the brunt of the force in collisions with larger vehicles and this accounts for those high rates. In addition to higher death rates to compact cars, larger vehicles also inflict greater injury to the body. However, there are certain models that are outliers. In that IIHS study, there were two 2017 compact models that defied the trend: the Volkswagen Golf and the Nissan Leaf. They had very low death rates compared to the high average rates of the rest of its compact class.

Are large cars (SUVs and Trucks) having an impact?

The prevalence of large vehicles on the road, whether they are SUVs, minivans, small pickups or large, heavy duty trucks, is a reality. For the occupants of a larger vehicle, statistics show they have the lowest death rates in a collision compared to occupants in smaller vehicles.

However, IIHS has found that large vehicles like SUVs are more likely to kill pedestrians than smaller cars. Other research has stated larger, full-size trucks, because of their sheer size and frame, create blind spots that can hide pedestrians and smaller cars, increasing the risk of collision, severe injury, and death to those on and around the road with them. Researchers have stated bigger vehicles have a harder time avoiding crashes. But as new car sales have indicated, the market is there for bigger vehicles.

Why do car accidents happen?

While the safety and impact of large vehicles on the road is being studied and researched, especially in comparison to compact cars, driver behavior cannot be overlooked.  Here are some of the leading reasons accidents occur:

  • Speeding, or driving faster than the legally posted limits
  • Driver distraction, such as texting, eating or other activities while driving
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Alcohol or drug impairment

Other factors and considerations have also been known to impact driver safety:

Tips to drive safely

If you are driving a compact car, as with any car you drive, you should always follow your state and local government guidelines around driver safety, comply with the posted speed limit and remain a focused and courteous driver. In addition, to protect yourself from the possibility of a larger vehicle blind spot, whether from an SUV or larger, full-size truck, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep away from the sides of SUVs and large trucks whenever possible. Quickly pass them if you must and be vigilant in signaling so you are satisfied you’ve been seen by the driver.
  • Ensure you can see the larger vehicle’s side mirrors. If you’re unable to see the driver in their side mirror, it’s probable they don’t see you either.
  • Anticipate and watch for the other drivers’ actions. Stay observant and keep an eye on other vehicles’ signals and brake lights.
  • Ensure there is enough space in front of you. If you can see a vehicle’s headlights in your rearview mirror, you are out of the front blind spot.
  • Do not tailgate. Driving behind larger vehicles means you may not see what is in front of them. Stay clear of the zone directly behind them and provide ample space for them to slow down or stop.

If you are considering buying a compact car, you will need to ask yourself a few questions. In addition to the bells and whistles of new tech features, its reliability and price, you will need to consider how safely the car is made and the impact of larger vehicles on the road. Luckily, auto insurance will take care of the unexpected. Get a quote today.

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