Rolling Over the Facts on SUV Safety, by Amy Ridenour and Eric Peters

More people were killed last year in rollover-type accidents involving pickups and SUVs than in previous years: statistically speaking, about 1.51 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.1 But despite alarmist reportage by the major media and SUV-haters in the punditocracy, this is still pretty low by historical standards of 5.5 million deaths per 100 million vehicles miles traveled in the mid-1960s, and 1.75 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1992.2

Moreover, it’s rarely mentioned in anti-SUV rants that rollover-type accidents account for just 2.5 percent of all crashes. Or that the actual number of people killed in these kinds of accidents, while impressive-sounding in terms of percentage increase from year to year – up 4.9 percent from 2001 to 2002 – actually represents a relatively small number: 10,626 deaths in 2002 vs. 10,130 in 2001, an increase of 496 deaths.3

In a nation of 300 million people with some 16.6 million new vehicles sold every year,4 half of them SUVs and pickups, that’s hardly an epidemic of rollover-type crashes. (For comparison: 3,529 people drowned in swimming pool accidents in 1999 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)

There are also vastly more SUVs and pickups on the roads today than ten or 20 years ago, both in terms of actual numbers and as a percentage of the nation’s vehicle fleet. In fact, this year SUVs, pickups and other “light truck” sales will constitute a majority of all new vehicle sales.5

It stands to reason that the more SUVs there are on the road, the greater the number of accidents involving them there will be.

Few news stories about the supposedly dramatic rise in fatal accidents involving “dangerous” and “unstable” SUVs mention these facts, though – leaving the average American with the false impression that vehicular carnage is at historic high levels – and that SUVs and pickups are far more risky to drive than they really are.

While no increase in accidents or fatalities of any sort is a good thing, some perspective is clearly in order.

In the 97.5 percent of accidents that are not rollovers, SUVs are safer to be in than the typical passenger car. In side, frontal and rear-end collisions, for example, the typical 4,500-lb. SUV offers as much as two to three times more protection against impact forces than a 3,000-lb. compact/mid-sized sedan. Also, an SUV with four wheel drive is less likely to be involved in an accident in the first place, or suffer loss of control in certain conditions, such as heavy rain or snow. And 59 percent of those killed in SUV rollover accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, likely would have survived had they been wearing seatbelts.6

Viewed in their totality, the facts indicate that SUVs are more than reasonably safe; indeed, when driven responsibly, their overall safety is demonstrably superior to that of the typical compact and mid-sized passenger car.

Unfortunately, as SUVs have become popular mass-market vehicles, instead of the specialty/”niche” vehicles they once were, more people who don’t really understand SUVs or have much respect for what they are built to do and not do are driving them to work every day.

Some buy SUVs because of their rugged looks, higher ride or ability to carry many groceries. But fewer than five percent of all SUV owners ever take their SUVs off-road, according to auto industry surveys.

Thus we have the problem of a large and growing group of people who buy SUVs – vehicles specifically built to handle rugged, uneven terrain, deep mud, snow, etc. – but who almost never actually use the off-road capability built into these vehicles. Yet the capabilities built into most SUVs to handle off-road conditions are precisely the source of the SUVs’ weaknesses, if driven aggressively – and the root cause of the “rollover epidemic.”

A higher center of gravity – when the vehicle’s mass is well above the ground – can make an SUV more “tipsy,” but this only becomes a serious problem if the driver pushes the SUV into corners, makes violent lane changes or turns at high speed. Mud and snow-rated tires such as are typically found on SUVs are great for the conditions they were designed to deal with, but offer less lateral grip if the vehicle is thrown into a hard turn. Weight transfer is another area in which SUVs differ from passenger cars. Under hard braking, acceleration and cornering, an SUV’s weight shifts more dramatically, unsettling the vehicle. This can be a particular problem during a tire failure at high speed (70-plus) as occurred during the recent Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle.

Many SUV drivers have gotten themselves into trouble by assuming that an exit ramp or bend posted at 35 or 45 miles per hour (mph) is perfectly safe to take at five to ten mph over the posted limit because their car can handle the same curve at that speed with no difficulty. But the car’s strengths in cornering are the SUV’s weakness – just as the car would be in trouble in deep snow or attempting to cross a stream. However, it’s not the SUV’s fault when it’s pushed beyond its limits and expected to handle a situation it wasn’t designed for any more than it’s a “design defect” of the average passenger car that it can’t scrabble up dirt-covered backwoods trails very well.

Yet the emphasis of an increasingly vocal group of anti-SUV activists is to blame SUVs first, put out incomplete information about their safety record, and demand new regulations7 – not to urge that SUV drivers be educated to drive their vehicles appropriately and with respect for their built-in limitations in high-speed, fast-cornering situations.

The auto industry is doing some good by building more on-road-friendly SUVs called “crossovers” that are built on car-type platforms that are lower to the ground and which therefore ride, handle and behave more like passenger cars, even though they still look like burly SUVs on the outside.

But there’s only so much idiot-proofing that can be done. People who insist on driving their SUVs at 80 mph and weaving through dense traffic – then taking off-ramps posted at 35 mph at 50 mph – are going to get into trouble no matter what the federal government forces the automakers to do.

But it’s unfair (and counterproductive) to blame the vehicles and those who build them – or to force responsible SUV drivers to pay more for new technology and equipment, such as factory-installed stability control systems, etc. that are designed to protect the willfully irresponsible from themselves.


Amy Ridenour is president and Eric Peters a senior fellow of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 Fatality Accident Reporting System Web-Based Encyclopedia, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., available at as of June 2, 2003.

2 Ibid.

3 “Frequently Asked Questions,” Sport Utility Owners of America, Washington, D.C., available at as of June 2, 2003 and “The Facts, Please,” Fleet Owner, May 1, 2003, available at http: as of June 2, 2003.

4 “U.S. Light Vehicle Sales and Production Outlook – 2003,” Automotive Digest, available at as of June 2, 2003.

5 “SUV Sales Pass Pickups in 2000,” Fact of the Week (#148), Office of Transportation Technologies, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., November 13, 2000, available at as of June 2, 2003.

6 “B.01.13 Upgrade of Rollover Crash Protection,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., available at on June 2, 2003.

7 “Consumer Information Regulations; Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Rollover Resistance,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., available at as of June 2, 2003.

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