The Myth of SUV Safety Superiority

© Keith Ellis WSVFD Fire Photographer

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, 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.

A new study backs up conclusions from Keith Bradsher’s 2002 book.

“Smaller SUVs—with a wheelbase of less than 100 inches—had a disproportionately high incidence of fatal rollover crashes. Small SUVs were involved in rollover crashes more than four times as often as the average passenger car.”

Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, has tirelessly reported on the danger of SUV rollover. The magazine joined with the Center for Auto Safety and the Safety First Coalition to warn of problems with the Suzuki Samurai in 1988, and again with the Isuzu Trooper and others in 1997. The consumers group tried to persuade the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate and establish a national rollover standard, but was unsuccessful. Suzuki sued Consumer Reports for “product disparagement” but the case was settled and dismissed in 2004. No money exchanged hands, but CU admitted that its statement that the Samurai “easily rolls over in turns” might have been a little strong.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) says that today’s SUVs are much safer than earlier models because they’re less top-heavy, and a spokesperson claims they are now “safer or as safe as cars in the vast majority of crashes.” AAM has some ambivalence about proposed federal rules that would strengthen SUV roofs, however, asking that they be phased in over a longer period of time to allow for design changes. AAM also has “serious concerns” about “any potential requirement for a vehicle to withstand a force more than 2.5 times a vehicle’s unloaded weight because of the potential for unintended consequences, such as a higher center of gravity that could increase the risk of rollovers.” Translation: reinforce the roof for safety and you make the vehicle more top-heavy, increasing the chance it will tuck and roll.

The rollover risk is probably greatest during the winter, when four-wheel drive overconfidence gets a lot of drivers into trouble. In 2003, I wrote “An SUV and Ice: Recipe for a Rollover” in the New York Times “Escapes” section. I found that police officers have a dim view of SUV winter performance, especially under icy conditions. I interviewed retired police sergeant Gary Apperson, who spent 25 years on the highways of Anchorage, Alaska. Four-wheel drive, he said, makes drivers think they are invincible.

The major cause of accidents in bad weather, according to Apperson, is “driver inexperience and too much speed for the conditions.” Another Alaskan I interviewed, Stan Barney of Wreckerman Towing in Anchorage, said he had pulled many hot shots out of the local ditches. “Drivers of top-heavy sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are the worst,” he said. “I see a lot of Blazers and Broncos upside down.”

Another snow and ice veteran, Brent Mikstas, Toronto detachment commander of the Ontario Provincial Police, said that the 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.“Liz Neblett, a NHTSA spokesperson, told me that it’s not surprising that SUVs can be difficult to stop in bad weather. “Bigger vehicles are harder to stop, particularly in the winter,” she said. “If you hit ice and put your foot on the brake, four-wheel drive isn’t going to help you—you’re going to skid for a long time.” The industry reinforces the myth of SUVs as bad-weather beaters with billions of dollars of advertising. The Chevy Blazer, said one ad, “is prepared for the worst of Mother Nature
.Whether you’re in a Colorado snowstorm or a Midwestern downpour.” The Land Rover Discovery “makes the whole idea of canceling school because of the weather seem completely unnecessary.”

NHTSA seems sobered by the new study. A spokesperson, Rae Tyson, says she hopes families will check safety ratings carefully. “I think there is a segment of the buying public that may be buying them [SUVs] with the false impression that they are buying the safest vehicle they can for their families,” she said.


Alliance of Automobile

Pediatrics (January issue available January 4)