If safety is a priority for you when you shop for your next vehicle be sure to get the vehicle with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive if it is offered. Substantial data point to the two-wheel-drive trims being less safe.
Automotive writers like to emphasize that a vehicle with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive will not stop better in slippery road conditions. They also like to point out that for the most part, they won't turn better either. These are factual statements. Here's another fact; In the real world, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive trims of the very same vehicle overwhelmingly have much lower driver death rates than trims with just two-wheel drive. The data point to the 4X4 and AWD trims of those same vehicles being safer. Much safer.
The latest Insurance Institue for Highway Safety (IIHS) study is one the group conducts about every three years. The Institute compiles the fatality data for each make and model for vehicles over a span of time. In this latest study, the time span is model year 2015-2017 vehicles. The group then lists out the driver death rate for each make and model. That data is also sorted by which drivetrain the model has, four-wheel drive (4X4), or two-wheel drive. To keep the language simple, IIHS calls all-wheel drive (AWD) "4-wheel drive." For example, a Nissan Juke subcompact crossover has AWD, but the group includes that trim as 4-wheel drive trim to differentiate it from the 2WD trim. While 4X4 and AWD are not the same thing, they do both power all four wheels in certain situations.
Four-Wheel-Drive and All-Wheel-Drive Are The Safer Choices
The data show that almost across the board, the trims that power all four wheels have much lower drive death rates. Let's start with the single most popular non-truck sold in America, the Toyota RAV4. This is the vehicle with the largest data set. The RAV4 AWD has a driver death rate of 10. The 2WD version of that exact same vehicle has a driver death rate of 28. Nearly triple the likelihood (however small) of being killed while driving the vehicle. Make this comparison with the Nissan Rogue or Honda CR-V, the two next-best selling vehicles in that huge segment, and the results are the same. The AWD trims have a markedly lower driver death rate.
Trucks a bit trickier to compare because they have such a broader range of configurations and not all have 4X4 offerings in the same cab styles. One that does is the very popular Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew Cab. When equipped with 4-wheel drive, the Silverado has a driver death rate of 26. When it is equipped with a 2WD drivetrain the death rate is 54. Double the chances of being killed while driving it just by opting for 2WD.
Now let's look at the data for some mid-sized SUVs, or crossovers. The Kia Sorento AWD has a driver death rate of 11. That same model with 2WD has a death rate of 32. Compare the Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer and the AWD version has a markedly lower death rate as well.
With cars, the comparison is harder since top-sellers like the Accord, Altima, and Camry were not offered with AWD back in 2017. One midsized four-door sedan that was offered both ways was the Ford Fusion. The Fusion AWD has a death rate of 22. The 2WD version of that same car has a death rate of 39.
Across all categories, the data tend to agree that the exact same model vehicle in a trim that powers all four wheels has a much lower driver death rate. Our simple conclusion is that all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive systems are one of the most valuable safety systems you can purchase. That is true whether you buy a family crossover, SUV, truck, or car. Powering all four wheels reduces your chances of dying while driving that car in real-world crashes.
You can view the model-specific death rate data here. The IIHS summary of this year's report is located at this link. Tell us what you think about the correlation between AWD and safety in the comments below.
John Goreham is a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career to chase his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
Top of page image by John Goreham. RAV4 AWD schematic by Toyota media support.