Pickup safety lags behind cars, SUVs in safety ratings

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
Action shot taken during the passenger-side small overlap frontal crash test of the 2019 Ford F-150 SuperCrew.

Washington  — Utility and luxury are the selling points for the new breed of pickups. But safety is one area where many trucks are not keeping up with their sedan and SUV counterparts. 

Only one of 11 midsize and full-size crew-cab pickups recently tested by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety received the group’s coveted Top Safety Pick designation. More than half of the 2019 models tested earned only a "marginal" or "poor" rating in a punishing front-end crash test that looks at passenger safety.

By comparison, eight midsize SUVs earned Top Safety Picks and seven midsize sedans earned that top designation.

It might seem that the strength and mass of a truck would help protect passengers in a crash, but body-on-frame pickups tend to be more rigid than unibody passenger cars and as a result do not collapse as easily in a front-end collision. They end up transferring that energy into the passenger compartment.

Although safety features like electronic stability-control and side air-curtains have made their way to trucks, other safety features that are typically standard on passenger cars are frequently optional add-ons in the pickup segment, despite the much higher sticker price of pickups.

As an example, a $24,295 Subaru Forester comes standard with adaptive cruise-control, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist. On the Ram 1500 pickup, which starts at $31,795, options like blind-spot detection, forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning cost extra. The Ram 1500 does come standard with safety features like brake-assist, electronic roll-mitigation and electronic stability-control.

Nereida Mooney of Lincoln Park, who leased a 2019 Ford F-150 in November, said she moved to a pickup from a Ford Explorer because she wanted more towing capability. But to be able to afford the pickup, she had to forgo features that were on her old Ford Explorer like blind-spot detection and air bag seat belts for the back seats. 

"The only downside was that on the Ford F-150s the up-charge was a lot more, so I then had no choice but to go with the cheaper option — getting more of a standard pickup," she said.

The F-150, which starts at $28,155, comes standard with pre-collision assist with automatic emergency-braking, automatic high-beam headlights, rearview camera and Ford's AdvanceTrac stability system that is intended to prevent rollover crashes. Ford's Blind Spot Information System is available on the $34,160 Ford F-150 XLT trim level and above, and lane-keep assist is available on the $41,700 F-150 Lariat trim level and above.

David Zuby, chief research officer for the IIHS, shows off a crash-tested Ford F-150. The truck earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick designation every year since 2015 until 2019.

Since 2015, the only pickup besides the Honda Ridgeline to earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick designation had been the Ford F-150, which received the designation each year except 2019. The F-150 missed out on the IIHS Top Safety Pick because its headlights earned a "poor" ratings in the group's tests. IIHS began requiring "good" or "acceptable" headlight ratings to qualify for its Top Safety Pick designation in 2017. 

"Headlight tests are extremely challenging, especially for vehicles with higher-mounted headlights," said David Aylor, manager of active-safety testing at IIHS. "It's a challenge to get visibility when you have headlights mounted that don't glare down on other cars." 

Aylor said automakers have been slow to roll out standard safety features on pickups — in part because they typically offer a stripped-down work truck as a base model for use in fleets. 

He noted that pickups are usually marketed based on their utility and towing capability. 

"The marketing is very different for pickups," he said. "I think buyers are looking for different things on pickups than they are on family cars or SUVs." 

Reliability is the most important attribute for pickup buyers, according to a 2018 study by Cox Automotive. Just 1.5 percent of full-size pickup buyers and 1.8 percent of midsize customers said safety ratings were at the top of their decision-making process. 

That doesn't mean trucks are inherently unsafe: Pickups fall midway between SUVs and passenger cars when it comes to the relative frequency of fatal crashes. In 2017 in the U.S., there were 37 occupant deaths per million registered pickups that are between one and three years old, according to IIHS. That compares to 22 deaths per million SUVs and 46 deaths per million passenger cars.

The Nissan Frontier earned an overall marginal rating in the passenger side test crash.

Those numbers were down across the board from 2007, when there were 95 deaths per million registered pickups, compared to 44 deaths for SUVs and 77 deaths for cars.

Aylor noted carmakers have a voluntary commitment with the federal government to make automatic emergency-braking standard by 2022. The agreement covers midsize and full-size pickups, passenger cars and SUVs. Heavy-duty pickups are exempt until 2025. But safety critics have lamented there is no punishment for automakers who do not make standard the systems that alert drivers to imminent front-end crashes, and then slam on the brakes if there is no response.

"We're seeing them roll it out on small cars, sedans and SUVs," Aylor said. "We're starting to see Toyota make some of them standard, and Ford. But trucks are definitely lagging behind." 

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for auto safety in Washington, blames the government.

"The reason pickups, which are among the most-driven vehicles in the U.S., are far behind all other cars and trucks is because larger pickups were given an additional three years when NHTSA negotiated a voluntary agreement with the industry for making automatic emergency-braking standard," he said. "In other words, instead of mandating this life-saving advanced technology, the federal government is once again helping car and truck manufacturers reserve safety for the rich."  


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing