There was big news out of Bloomington, Illinois this week: SUVs are no safer for kids than are passenger cars, largely because of much greater rollover risk! It astonished me to see this in big headlines everywhere, because I’ve been reporting on it for years. It’s true, read my lips: SUVs are not safer than cars. Don’t buy an SUV thinking it’s the ultimate protection for your children, and don’t buy one to insulate you from the dangers of winter driving, either.
First, the news. SUV registrations climbed 250 percent between 1995 and 2002, largely because safety fears propelled people toward big gas guzzlers. But now a study sponsored by Partners for Child Passenger Safety (part of Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital) and published January 3 in the influential journal Pediatrics found roughly equivalent injury rates between cars and SUVs.
Despite the SUVs weighing an average of 1,300 extra pounds (a measure of safety in the public mind), a study of accidents involving almost 4,000 kids under 16 found nearly identical 1.7 percent child injury rates. The extra weight did increase safety (reducing injury risk by a third), but in the case of top-heavy SUVs that gain is balanced by their propensity to roll over at more than twice the rate of cars. And kids in rollovers are three times more likely to be hurt.
“We’re not saying they’re worse or that they’re terrible vehicles,” Dr. Dennis Durbin, a pediatric emergency physician involved in the study, told AP. “We’re challenging the conventional wisdom that everyone assumed they were better.”
The researchers pronounced themselves “surprised” about this, but they shouldn’t have been. It’s really old news. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher talked about it in his 2002 book High and Mighty: SUVs—The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way (Public Affairs). “The truth is that for a wide variety of real-world hazards, driving an SUV is a safety liability, not an asset,” he wrote in “The Myth of Four-Wheel Drive Safety,” a chapter in High and Mighty. “And if an icy patch sends you sliding to the edge of the road, or if another vehicle delivers a glancing blow that pushes you into a curb or guardrail, an SUV is far more likely than a car to kill you or paralyze you by rolling over.”
The propensity for SUVs to roll over is well known. According to the website SUV.org, based on federal data, “SUVs rollover in 37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to a 15 percent rollover rate for passenger cars. Rollover crashes accounted for 53 percent of all SUV occupant deaths in single-vehicle crashes in 1996. Only 19 percent of occupant fatalities in passenger cars occurred in similar crashes.