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  SUV Safety: a false sense of security

Americans have embraced the SUV as a family car, but regulators say the rugged vehicles can be hazardous to passengers, as well as other drivers.

Don't make the mistake of many non-thinking Americans. Don't say "a compact tin-can car isn't going to be safer than my SUV". Be smarter than that! Of course there are some very small, not so safe cars! But with careful shopping, you can buy a much safer car than any SUV - and for much less money.

The biggest fallacy in Amercan thinking today is that "bigger is safer". The reason that SUVs can't be compared to many passenger cars when it comes to safety is that their basic construction and design differs in a number of fundamental ways:

  • Center of Gravity : Rollovers - The center of gravity of a passenger car is lower than an SUV. This is because the relative height of an SUV compared to it's width is much higher than that of a passenger car. The result: SUVs have a much higher risk of rolling over in an accident. In fact, many SUVs have a 30 to 40% risk of rollover in a single-vehicle crash (Pathfinder, Cherokee, Liberty, Blazer, and others). And occupant fatality in rollovers for SUVs are 35.2%. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - NHTSA).
  • Guardrails - Current traffic safety features such as guardrails and curbs, meant to keep cars on the road, tend to "trip" a tall SUV, causing it to flip over. Even changes in a paved surface, such as a gravel shoulder, can cause some SUVs to lose their balance.
  • Frame - Many SUVs are build with a "body-on-frame" construction, where the passenger compartment is bolted to a truck undercarriage. (As opposed to a "unibody" construction that is used for passenger cars.) During a crash, a body-on-frame construction may separate, exposing the vehicle's occupants to harm.
  • Brakes - Until 2003, federal regulations were more lenient for brake standards for SUVs. This, along with much heavier construction, makes for longer stopping distances and more likelihood of overheating of the brakes.
  • Bumpers - Higher bumpers in SUVs make them more likely to plow over the hood or door of some passenger cars, crushing the passenger compartment.

What are your alternatives?

Fortunately, many passenger cars are rated much higher for safety standards (as well as fuel consumption, and emissions). Take a look at a number of the safest cars on the road, all of which have AWD, hold the same number of passengers and in some cases have more storage capacity: Volvo XC90, Subaru Outback and Forester, many mini-Vans, and lots more.

Buying a Safer Car Guide and Crash Test Results - NHTSA

Rollover Resistance Ratings Information
Check out the rollover ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Vehicle Ratings - Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and Highway Loss Data Institute

  • SUV Rollover - SUV safety ratings, recall information, crash facts, related news and legal aid


    News Articles and Studies

    March 23 - NHTSA to probe millions of Ford pickups, SUVs - MSNBC.com
    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday it would investigate more than 3.7 million Ford Motor Co. pickups and sport utility vehicles for a defect in a cruise control switch that led to a January recall.

    January 31 - Safety issues plague SUV - NewsDay, NY
    Although the nation's highway death rate per mile driven has been steadily declining for decades, the number of people killed in SUV rollovers has been climbing - up 14 percent in 2002, and by another 6.8 percent in 2003 to 2,639.

    August 27 - Ad campaign targets stricter clean air rules - Seattle Post
    The ads conflict with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data released earlier this month that found SUV drivers were slightly more likely to die in accidents than people driving cars, and almost three times as likely to die in rollovers.

    August 9 - Some Ford SUVs at bottom of rollover ratings - MSNBC.com
    "Most cars did better than the highest-ranked sport utility for rollover safety. The safest vehicle overall in the latest ratings, the Mazda Motor Corp. RX-8 four-door, has an 8 percent chance of rolling over. By comparison, the two-wheel drive Explorer Sport Trac has a nearly 35 percent chance, the government said."

    June 9 - 10 tips for SUV safety - Bankrate.com
    That kind of overconfidence also stems from a common misconception that SUVs are safer than cars. But the grim stats from crash studies indicate otherwise. Says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Pound for pound -- when you compare SUVs with vehicles of a similar weight -- SUVs tend to be less safe than cars."

    May 3 - Envisioning a better SUV - Rocky Mountain News
    Friedman, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, methodically laid out the main points of his group's recent report, "Building a Better SUV: A Blueprint for Saving Lives, Money and Gasoline." The report outlines a plan for a sport utility that will, the scientists' group says, beat the automakers at their own game. The group's design promises a vehicle that has all of the features that attract buyers to SUVs but is safer and far more fuel efficient.

    April 30 - SUVs Cited in Highest Traffic Death Rate Since 1990 - Health Central
    Fatalities in passenger cars declined, but deaths in SUVs increased 11 percent, according to NHTSA figures. Fifty-five percent of the deaths in SUVs were the result of rollover crashes, which "was partially accounted for by increases in SUV sales," a government statement said. Motorcycle fatalities rose 11 percent.

    April 29 - Deaths increase in SUV rollovers - Contra Costa Times
    Rollover crashes involving sport utility vehicles claimed an increasing number of lives last year, while fatalities in passenger cars went down, the government reported Wednesday. There was an 11 percent increase in SUV crash deaths and a 3.8 percent decrease in passenger car fatalities.

    April 12 - European vehicles exceed standard for U.S. car roofs - Detroit News
    While the need for a strong roof is emphasized by Volvo and other European automakers, their U.S. counterparts have insist there is no correlation between roof intrusion and serious injuries.
    Steve Forrest, an engineer who has analyzed Ford documents in rollover trials, said it is clear that the company routinely takes weight out of the roof structure to save money and maximize fuel efficiency. He calls it "designing down to the standard."

    April 11 - Thousands killed, hurt as auto roofs collapse - Detroit News
    Critics say the industry-backed test, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216, is too weak to save lives, particularly as rollover-prone SUVs and pickups proliferate.

    March 24 - Keeping the Safety in SAFETEA: Life-Saving Vehicle Safety Provisions Are Long-Overdue and Feasible - Public Citizen

    March 18 - Rules to Strengthen Vehicle Roofs Are Weighed - NT Times
    Complicating the issue is the fact that dozens of models of the heaviest S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks, those 6,000 pounds or more, are exempt from any roof strength regulations at all because the rules were developed long before the truck boom. Among the unregulated models are the Ford Expedition; Hummers; Chevrolet Suburbans and TrailBlazers; the BMW X5; the Lincoln Navigator; the Toyota Sequoia; and the Nissan Armada.

    February 6 - Safety test rates vehicles - SanMateo County Times
    The Ford Explorer Sport Trac got the worst rating among 14 vehicles subjected to a new government safety test designed to predict the likelihood of a rollover during a sharp turn.

    February 4 - Crash victim takes on the SUV - Boulder Daily Camera
    Mark Higgins is an energetic, wiry guy with a broken Geo Storm and three fused vertebrae in his neck. He was making a left turn when a Chevrolet Blazer sailed through a red light and struck him broadside, like a sledgehammer on a tin can. "This is what happens when the driver of an S.U.V. runs a red light and talks on a cell phone at the same time," the sign reads. "I received painful and serious injuries. Respect the rights of others."

    February 2 - Definition of 'truck' may change for N.Y. roads - CNN.com
    Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette wants to require heavy SUVs to travel along truck routes, saying their girth makes them subject to the same weight-based safety standards as their commercial cousins.

    December 9 - Many Trucks, but Not All, Face Redesign in Safety Plan - NY Times
    Changes in vehicle design and equipment, which almost all automakers who do business in the United States agreed to last week, are aimed at addressing the safety ramifications of the growth in sales of light trucks, which account for more than half of the passenger vehicles sold in the United States each year. The alterations could eventually save thousands of lives a year, according to projections made by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and endorsed by the automakers.

    November 28 - SUV Bumper Tests - MSNBC.com
    "When it comes to minor bumps, they're anything but rough and rugged," says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "They're fragile." October 15 - Government study questions safety of SUVs - CNN.com
    Mid-size sport utility vehicles are nine times as likely as passenger cars to be involved in fatal rollover crashes and twice as likely to kill the occupants of other vehicles in crashes, a government study says.

    July 31 - Big and Fancy, More Pickups Displace Cars - NY Times
    When the average large pickup truck collides with a second vehicle, people in the second vehicle die at a rate of 293 for every 100,000 crashes, according to federal crash statistics. By comparison, large sport utility vehicles kill people in the second vehicle at a rate of 205 per 100,000 crashes; minivans kill at a rate of 104 deaths; and large cars at a rate of 85 deaths.

    June 17 - Most SUVs Flunk New Crash Test - Automotive News
    Only two out of 12 compact sport utility vehicles scored a "good" grade in a new crash test designed to measure injuries resulting from a SUV or pickup truck ramming into the side of the vehicles. Head-protecting side air bags, which can make the difference between minor injuries and death in a side-impact crash, were the difference between the vehicles that earned "good" ratings and others that scored "poor" in the test.

    April 30 - Luxury Car and SUV bumper test - MSNBC
    Maybe you think bigger is better. Many drivers feel that way about their luxury cars and SUVs. But when it comes to the cost of repairs, a little fender bender can be a big surprise.

    April 27 - How safe are SUVs? - Boulder Daily Camera
    While rollovers affect about 3 percent of passenger vehicles crashes, they account for 32 percent of fatalities. Vehicle rollover crashes resulted in more than 10,000 deaths in 2001. and MORE...

    April 17 - SUVs: Suddenly Upside-down Vehicles
    A pair of court rulings in the last month that reopen SUV rollover cases against Ford Motor Company spell serious legal problems for the automaker. Citing these and earlier court rulings, the Environmental Working Group has petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an unprecedented criminal probe of Ford's pattern and practice of willfully concealing safety-related defect data from courts, federal regulators and consumers.

    Feb. 27 - Voluntary steps urged for SUV safety - CNN
    The industry has recently acknowledged sport utility vehicle safety concerns as federal regulators and Congress have sharpened their focus on the issue. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said auto companies agree with government figures showing the fatality rate in rollovers is three times greater for those in SUVs than for those in cars.

    Feb. 24 - SUV crash tests: Small utility vehicle performances range from good to poor in 40 mph crash tests - State Farm Insurance
    Only one of the small utility vehicles tested in a 40 mph frontal offset crash earned a good overall rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and only one is rated poor. "There's a range of performance in between, with half of the vehicles we tested turning in marginal crashworthiness performances," Institute President Brian O'Neill points out. The best performer in the Institute's offset crash test was the Subaru Forester. The worst performer was the Isuzu Amigo.

    Jan. 29 - SUV Rollovers Play Rising Role in Traffic Deaths
    While car-rollover deaths declined 15% between 1991 and 2000, this was offset by a 35% increase for light trucks, according to the report.

  • Jan. 22 - Speaking out on the perils of SUVs - LA Times
    Jeffrey W. Runge, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, stunned the auto industry last week in a speech by declaring that sport utility vehicles are not safe enough and consumers should reconsider buying them.
  • Dec. 21, 2002 - A Regulator Takes Aim at Hazards of S.U.V.'s - NY Times
    Some automakers have already taken steps to make S.U.V.'s safer, for other drivers and for their own occupants. But to Dr. Runge, there is much more to be done. As head of the traffic safety agency, he has the authority to set vehicle safety standards, though they are reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, whose administrator, John D. Graham, rejected a tire safety proposal in February. Automakers will undoubtedly continue to put up a determined fight if they feel that their cash cows are threatened.
  • Oct. 16 - High and Mighty: SUV's - the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way
    SUV owners are mad! Mad at Keith Bradsher's controversial new book... Bradsher is a well respected, Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter, known for his investigation of the Ford-Firestone rollover scandal. In this survey of how SUVs got to be so large and so profitable, Bradsher takes the most important look at motor vehicle safety since Ralph Nader's 1965 landmark Unsafe At Any Speed.

    May 20 - Probe Begun of SUV Rollover That Killed 6
    A Ford Expedition carrying six people swerved into a brushy area and rolled violently after the driver apparently lost control...

    April 17 - Jeep Rocked by Fire, Rollover Concerns
    Autos: DaimlerChrysler unit recalls 1.1 million SUVs and acknowledges redesigning new Liberty after it flips in tests.

    Jeep Libertys recalled
    DaimlerChrysler said it is recalling 120,000 new Jeep Liberty sport/utility vehicles because of a defect in the air bag system... beware!

    Two popular SUVs fail tests
    Ford Explorer, Jeep Liberty fare worst in low-speed crash tests.

    Frontline (PBS) - the Hidden History of Rollovers
    They're the most popular vehicles in America - are they also among the most dangerous?

    What's your risk of rollover?
    Of people killed in cars last year, 22 percent were killed in rollovers. But in SUVs, 62 percent of the deaths involved rollovers. Most cars are rated with 4-5 stars for rollover safety. SUVs rank between 1-3, and are much more vulnerable with more people in the car (like your kids).

    Look up your vehicle's rollover risk
    May 25, 2000: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a new rating program to provide consumers with a measure of a vehicle's likelihood to roll over...

    Car crash tests: Midsize heavyweights do well
    Three midsize luxury [PASSENGER] cars -- BMW 3 Series, Volvo S80 and Cadillac Catera -- all got top marks overall in 40 mile per hour crash tests conducted by insurance industry researchers.

    SUVs don't fare well in new 5 mph tests
    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In new low-speed bumper crash tests, only one of the seven mid-size sports utility vehicles tested lived up to the claims of rough and rugged.

    Report says cars getting safer
    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Cars are getting safer, a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said.