SUVs: No Sport, No Utility—And No Safety

The singer-actress Eartha Kitt (TV"s Catwoman) was thankful for the solid construction of her Range Rover after it flipped over in Westport, Connecticut in early August. “Thank God for that car,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever drive another.”

Kitt should perhaps thank her well-known nine lives instead. The Range Rover may be solidly constructed, but like most SUVs its response to an accident is similar to that of a well-trained dog hearing its master’s voice: it rolls over. The facts are pretty clear, based on yearly federal reports: SUVs roll over far more than passenger cars, pickup trucks and vans. The 2003 SUV fatality rate per 100,000 vehicles was 16.42, compared to 14.85 for passenger cars, 15.17 for pickups and a greatly reduced 11.2 for vans. For every billion miles traveled, mid-sized cars have a death rate of 5.26. Mid-sized SUVs, the most popular form, had a 6.73 death rate in the same federal study.

To paraphrase George H.W. Bush here, “Read my lips: SUVs are not safer than cars.” They’re not only a threat to the environment, but to their safety-seeking occupants as well. Don’t trust me? How about a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety? “There is a misconception that SUVs are safer than cars,” says Russ Rader. “That’s not borne out by the crash statistics we compile every year. Pound for pound, if you"re comparing vehicles of a similar weight, SUVs tend to be less safe than cars.”

Brent Mikstas, Toronto detachment commander of the Ontario Provincial Police, sees his share of snow, and he believes that macho, go-anywhere SUVs are often the first to get in trouble. “The logical inference is that big SUVs with big tires will stop quicker, but ice is ice,” he said. “We see many SUV accidents on the acute angles of our Highway 401 entrance and exit ramps. Did overconfidence lead those drivers to go too fast for the conditions? I believe it did.”

New federal data show that domestic SUVs continue to perform poorly. The worst of a bad lot is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac 4X2, which has a 34.8 percent chance of rolling over in a one-car accident. Other poor performers include the Chevrolet Tahoe 4X2, the GMC Yukon 4X2, the Mercury Mountaineer 4X2 (all with a 28.3 percent chance). The worst car tested was an all-wheel-drive model, the Subaru Outback wagon (15.5 percent chance of tipping over). The small Chevrolet Aveo and Ford Focus wagon also didn"t fare that well, but their numbers were half those of the SUVs.

As Prakash Gandhi of points out, people love SUVs, which accounted for 24 percent of new vehicle sales last year. There are more than 20 million on the road. But SUVs are tall, top-heavy boxes, with a higher center of gravity and a more tenuous balance than the average sedan. Add to that the SUV"s generally imprecise steering and less-effective brakes, then stir in a healthy dose of driver overconfidence. It’s a recipe for rollover, and it’s borne out by the higher insurance rates that SUV owners routinely pay.

Some 10,000 people die from rollover-related accidents each year, according to federal statistics. Sixty percent of SUV deaths in 1999 were from rollovers (compared to just 23 percent for passenger cars). More alarming statistics: SUVs rollover in 37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to 15 percent for passenger cars.

An analysis by Joe Kimmel for USA Today found that most cars have a less than 10 percent likelihood of accident-related rollover. But most SUVs are likely to roll over in 25 percent of all accidents, some in almost 50 percent.

It’s not surprising that the auto industry doesn’t want this kind of information shattering the widespread myth of SUV safety. When Consumer Reports magazine reported that the Suzuki Samurai had a rollover problem in 1988, American Suzuki sued for $60 million (eight years later, the case ended in a non-monetary settlement).

If you want an eyeful about the horrific environmental impact of SUVs, take a look at the tally at “Today,” it says, “a car that gets approximately 27.5 mpg, like a Volkswagen New Beetle, will emit 54 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of gasoline over its lifetime. An SUV that gets 14 mpg, like a Lincoln Navigator, will emit over 100 tons of CO2 over its lifetime. A Harper’s Magazine writer took the massive Ford Excursion, the biggest of all SUVs, for a test drive. During a drive around a city, the mighty Excursion was only getting 3.7 miles per gallon. It is estimated the Excursion will produce 134 tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime.”

Taken together, the average SUV is environmentally wasteful and offers less utility than a much safer and often cheaper station wagon or minivan. What"s more, the word “sport” should be permanently retired, because most SUVs are lumbering, evil-handling road hogs. Where"s the “sport” in a vehicle with the turning radius of the Queen Mary?

The latest sales data show consumers turning away from the largest truck-based SUVs (like the Excursion and Chevy Suburban) and snapping up car-based crossover vehicles like the Chrysler Pacifica (which has the lowest rollover risk of any SUV). The big switch isn’t happening a minute too soon.