The myth of SUV safety:
People driving or riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars, the figures show. The government began keeping detailed statistics on the safety of vehicle categories in 1994.
[T]he main reason for the safety gap in S.U.V. and car fatalities, according to federal regulators, is that S.U.V.’s are more likely to roll over, a particularly deadly accident event that is a symptom of their higher ground clearance.
“It’s largely a function of the rollover problem,” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic agency. “In certain types of crashes, you’re more likely to be better off in an S.U.V., but that is offset by the fact the you’re more likely to roll over.”
Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a former top auto safety regulator, said, “There’s no question that the rollover problem with S.U.V.’s really undermines their safety.”
The traffic safety agency reported last week that there were 16.42 deaths of S.U.V. occupants in accidents last year for every 100,000 registered S.U.V.’s. The figure for passenger cars was 14.85 deaths for each 100,000 registered; pickups were slightly higher than cars at 15.17 deaths per 100,000, while vans were lowest at 11.2 occupant deaths for every 100,000 registered.
Rollover risk, though, is only one part of the safety picture. In crashes between vehicles, heavier vehicles tend to perform better than lighter ones, which is one reason that the smallest cars tend to have the highest occupant-fatality rates. The ways that people who own different types of vehicles tend to drive them is also a factor, especially in the case of sports cars.
But weight is not a simple proxy for safety. In a federal crash study this year, large passenger cars and station wagons, averaging about 3,600 pounds unloaded, were found to have a death rate of 3.3 for each billion miles traveled; they were second only to minivans, which had a rate of 2.76.
Ranked third safest after the large-car category were the largest, tanklike sport utility vehicles, which weigh in at an average of 5,100 pounds unloaded; their death rate was 3.79 for every billion miles. Midsize cars, averaging just over 3,000 pounds unloaded, had a 5.26 fatality rate; midsize S.U.V.’s, by far the most popular type, with an average weight over 4,000 pounds, had a death rate of 6.73 in the study.