SUVs: How Safe Are They?

Fasten your seatbelts for some politically incorrect news: You are most likely to survive a motor vehicle accident if the vehicle you are in is big.

Size and weight equals better occupant protection – it is basic physics – and a big reason for the ongoing popularity of SUVs. You (and your family) stand a much better chance of surviving a major crash in a 4,500-lb. mid-size SUV than in a 2,400-lb. subcompact, especially in a head-on collision.

Yet, ironically, it is SUVs that are increasingly being denounced as “unsafe” – typically by the same crowd that has been trying to force the public into smaller, less crashworthy cars for the past quarter century via government-mandated fuel economy standards.

Part of the attempted crucifixion of SUVs relies on selling half-truths about government crash test data. SUVs are portrayed as menaces because when they are involved in collisions with smaller cars, the smaller cars almost always suffer much more damage. But instead of suggesting that people who value their lives more than miles-per-gallon should consider driving larger, inherently more crashworthy vehicles, including SUVs, critics urge that SUVs (and large passenger cars) be forcibly “downsized” by government regulation in order to make the contest “more equal.”

If everyone drove cars the size of Honda Civics, they say, we would all be safer.

But that’s demonstrably false. If you run off the road and hit a telephone pole, or a big oak tree, you’ve got a much better chance of living to tell the tale if you are driving a larger vehicle rather than a compact. And in high-speed accidents, larger, heavier vehicles such as SUVs are inherently more crashworthy than compacts.

Indeed, simply increasing the weight of the typical passenger car by a mere 100 pounds would save about 300 lives per year, according to numerous studies, including those done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,1 USA Today,2 the Brookings Institution and Harvard.3 “Traveling in a larger, heavier vehicle reduces your risk of being killed in a crash,” states Dr. Leonard Evans of the International Traffic Medicine Association. “There is no more firmly established conclusion in the vast body of traffic safety research.”4

It is true that SUVs are more prone to rollover-type accidents. If driven aggressively – high-speed cornering, abrupt lane changes, violent maneuvering, etc. – an SUV can be rendered unstable more quickly and will be harder for the driver to recover control than in a typical passenger car. But deliberately pushing an SUV beyond its design limits, as has been done by some testers, and then tarring it as “unsafe” is comparable to characterizing other special-purpose vehicles (such as sports cars and sports sedans) as dangerous when subjected to similarly extreme conditions for which they were not designed.

The SUV safety issue must be viewed in its totality. Greater susceptibility to certain types of accidents in extreme situations is counter-balanced by superior occupant protection in most types of collisions.

Just as sporty cars with lower ground clearance and tires designed for maximum grip on dry, smooth pavement tend to be much more prone to skidding and sliding in the rain and snow, you’re more likely to “turn turtle” in an SUV – but only if you insist on making high speed turns, violent lane changes and so on. However, neither SUVs nor sports cars are unusually dangerous when driven with respect for their respective limitations in conditions for which their designs are not ideally suited.

People who buy high-performance sports cars know they are getting less interior room, a smaller trunk and a vehicle that is not at its best in the snow and rain, but they are willing to accept these disadvantages in exchange for the thrill of rapid acceleration, superior handling and braking that sporty cars offer. Similarly, SUV buyers value the superior roominess, capability and versatility these vehicles provide, and understand they are not buying sports cars and that they will pay more for gasoline.

Critics of SUV safety focus on the worst-case scenarios, but tend to ignore the SUV’s advantages in poor weather, such as rain and snow, when it is much less likely to be involved in an accident resulting from loss of driver control. They also tend to ignore its superior crashworthiness in the event an accident does occur. (Occupant fatality rates for SUVs are over ten percent lower than for cars.5)

SUV critics ignore the laws of physics that bigger is safer and mislead the public about federal crash test data. And they continue to push for new federal regulations that will have the effect of making the cars the average American drives less safe overall – costing thousands of people their lives every year.6

It is one thing to criticize SUVs for using more gas than the typical passenger car, or even to denounce them on aesthetic grounds. But to argue they’re less safe than passenger cars is dishonest – and demonstrably false.


Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 In an August 29, 1999 letter to then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO), Brian O’Neill, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, wrote:

Although the relationships between CAFE standards and vehicle safety are difficult to quantify precisely, there is no question that the two are related because smaller/lighter vehicles have much higher occupant fatality rates than larger/heavier vehicles. But the safer larger/heavier vehicles consume more fuel, so the more “safer” vehicles a manufacturer sells the more difficult it becomes to meet the CAFE standards.

Institute analyses of occupant fatality rates in 1990-95 model passenger vehicles show that cars weighing less than 2,500 pounds had 214 deaths per million registered vehicles per year, almost double the rate of 111 deaths per million for cars weighing 4,000 pounds or more. Among utility vehicles the differences are even more pronounced: Those weighing less than 2,500 pounds had an occupant death rate of 330, more than three times the rate of 101 for utility vehicles weighing 4,000 pounds or more.

It is important to recognize that these differences are due to factors in addition to the greater risks to occupants of lighter vehicles in collisions with heavier ones. Even in single-vehicle crashes, which account for about half of all passenger vehicle occupant deaths, people in lighter vehicles are at greater risk. The occupant death rate in single-vehicle crashes of cars weighing less than 2,500 pounds was 83, almost double the rate of 44 for cars weighing 4,000 pounds or more. In the lightest utility vehicles the occupant death rate was 199, again more than three times the rate of 65 for utility vehicles weighing 4,000 pounds or more.

The key question concerning the influence of CAFE standards on occupant safety is the extent to which these standards distort the marketplace by promoting additional sales of lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles that would not occur if CAFE constraints weren’t in effect. Because CAFE standards are set for a manufacturer’s fleet sales, it seems likely that raising these requirements for cars and/or light trucks would encourage a full-line manufacturer to further subsidize the sale of its smaller/lighter vehicles that have higher fuel economy ratings. This would help meet the new requirements while continuing to meet the marketplace demand for the manufacturer’s much more profitable larger/heavier vehicles. Obviously the potential purchasers of the larger/heavier vehicles are unlikely to be influenced to purchase subsidized small/light vehicles, but at the lower ends of the vehicle size/weight spectrum these subsidies likely would produce a shift in sales towards the lightest and least safe vehicles. The net result would be more occupant deaths than would have occurred if the market were not distorted by CAFE standards.

2 James R. Healy, “Deaths by the Gallon,” USA Today, July 2, 1999.

3 References to the “Harvard/Brookings study” refer to R.W. Crandall & J.D. Graham, “The Effect of Fuel Economy Standards on Automobile Safety,” Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., 1988, also published in the April 1989 edition of the Journal of Law and Economics. For additional information on the relationship between CAFE standards and highway safety, see the Fuel Economy Research Center of The National Center for Public Policy Research at; the online publication “CAFE history – 1970 to Today” by the auto industry-supported Coalition for Vehicle Choice at; Charli Coon, “Why the Government’s CAFE Standards for Fuel Efficiency Should Be Repealed, Not Increased,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1458, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., July 11, 2001; or Julie DeFalco, “The Deadly Effects of Fuel Economy Standards,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., 1999, available online at as of February 25, 2003.

4 Dr. Leonard Evans, “Reading Safety Gauges,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2002, available online at,02420.cfm as of February 25, 2003. Evans is president of the International Traffic Medicine Association, former president of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine and author of the 1991 book, Traffic Safety and the Driver. For additional information about the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, see

5 NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data for 1991-99 lists fatality rates in passenger cars at 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), for all compact SUVs (“typical” SUVs such as the Ford Explorer), the figure is 1.3 per 100 million VMT.

6 The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that existing federal fuel economy rules “most likely produced between 1,300-2,600 crash fatalities and between 13,000 and 26,000 serious injuries in 1993.” See “Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards,” available online at as of February 25, 2003. For extensive additional information, see James R. Healy, “Deaths by the Gallon,” USA Today, July 2, 1999.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.