Full-size pickups are often perceived as some of the safest vehicles you can buy, for the common sense fact that they're big and strong and built to be tough. But crash testing over the past two decades has shown that this is often not the case at all—pickups, even mid-size pickups, are sometimes less safe for their own occupants than ordinary passenger cars.
Part of this owes to the fact that most full-size pickups are still built with the classic body-on-frame method. That means a rigid frame forms the core structure of the truck, supporting the engine and axles, with the body bolted onto it. While this makes for massive towing and hauling capability, the structure of a body-on-frame truck generally isn't as well-suited to absorbing and dissipating crash energy as a modern unibody passenger car. Historically, pickup trucks were exempted from crash test requirements, too, so manufacturer development hasn't focused on protecting occupants in pickups for as long as it has in passenger cars. Add to that the fact that most buyers of new full-size pickups are still more concerned about payload and towing ability than about safety, relying on the sheer mass of the pickup for protection, and you have a triple threat.
This isn't just a problem for used trucks, either. As of the 2016 model year, just one (the 2016 Ford F-150) of the seven full-size trucks on the market has aced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) most difficult crash test, the small-overlap frontal impact test, with a top score of "good." Only two other full-size pickups have managed an "acceptable" score, the IIHS' mid-level rating (the 2016 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra, and the 2016 Toyota Tundra Double Cab). This test involves the tested vehicle striking a fixed barrier at 40 mph, with just 25 percent of the vehicle's width overlapped with the barrier—on the driver's side.
If you go back farther into the recent history of pickup truck safety, you'll notice that the number of trucks awarded an IIHS Top Safety Pick (TSP) award have been few, and occasionally far between—there were no TSP winners among pickup trucks in 2010 or 2014. To date, no pickup, not even among the currently on-sale models, has won a Top Safety Pick+ (TSP+) award.
One common thread between pickups and safety, no matter the size, appears to be the cab style. Extended and crew-cab models (those with longer cabs, or four doors) perform much better in crash tests than single-cab trucks. If the truck you're looking at isn't covered by relevant crash safety data, choosing a longer cab style may help direct you toward a safer option.
So what does the data show when it comes to the safest used full-size and mid-size pickup trucks around? Looking at the 2010-2015 model years, there are only a few choices—but then, the full-size pickup segment has much fewer choices than, say, the mid-size sedan market to begin with. The list below ranks the pickups in order of number of IIHS TSP or TSP+ wins—but every truck on the list has won at least once, making it among the safest pickups on the road in the year it was built. None of this is to say that there aren't other safe pickup options on the road—there definitely are. But if you want the absolute safest, going with an IIHS Top Safety Pick for the year it was built is one of the best objective ways to do it.
Top Safety Pick: 2009, 2011 (crew cab models built after February 2011 only), 2012 (crew cab models), 2013 (crew cab models), 2015 (SuperCrew model)
Top Safety Pick: 2008, 2009, 2011 (extended cab models only), 2012 (extended cab models only), 2013 (extended cab models only)
Top Safety Pick: 2009, 2012, 2013
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