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Are SUVs Really Safer?

By: Paul Geraghty - Updated: 4 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Are Suvs Really Safer?

Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are enormously popular in the United States, and are becoming more so over here. In 2005, SUVs accounted for just under 9% of all new car registrations in Britain and around 7% in Europe as a whole. We still have a long way to go before we reach the saturation levels seen in America, where SUVs dominate the vehicle market, but it is still appropriate to ask whether Britain can learn lessons from the American experience with these behemoths.

Customers who opt to buy sports utility vehicles rather than a more conventional vehicle often cite safety as their paramount concern. Driving inside one of these tall, bulky road monsters, which towers over the other cars on the road and looks, over the world, like a kind of urban assault vehicle, is enough tomake anyone feel invulnerable. But is the feeling justified?

The Dangers

Studies in the United States have shown that the belief that SUVs are safer to drive may be wildly misplaced. Although the vehicles are heavier than normal cars, and so might be expected to be more resilient in the event of acrash, statistics show that SUVs are involved in a disproportionately high number of fatal car accidents. In 2003, for example, a driver of an SUV was 11% more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than someone in a standard car. One of the key reasons is the extra height of the vehicles, which gives them a higher centre of gravity and makes them more prone to roll over in a collision or even a sharp road manoeuvre.

As well as posing a danger to their own drivers, research has shown that SUVs present a far greater threat to everyone else. Pedestrians who get knocked down by an SUV are twice as likely to die as those struck by a normal vehicle. The sheer mass of a typical SUV, in part, accounts for this,but the physical configuration of the vehicles is also important. Their blunt and broad frontal geometry makes injuries to the heads and neck regions of pedestrians far more common than is the case with car impacts which, because of a car's lower and more aerodynamic bearing, more frequently result only in leg injuries.

Other motorists don't fare any better. If you are travelling in a car which is involved in a collision with an SUV, you too are twice as likely to die as you would have been if you had been struck by another car. In this case, too, though the extra weight of the SUV contributes to its greater destructive potential, design is also a key factor. A typical SUV rides so high that its bumper will make no contact with the bumper of a car when the two are involved in a frontal collision. In a sideways impact, the SUV's bulky front end tends to strike the occupants of a car in the vulnerable upper body area, increasing the likelihood of fatality.

The Future of SUV's

As safety concerns about sports utility vehicles have become more widespread, the manufacturers have taken steps to address them, announcing the redesign of some existing models - to lower their bumper heights, for example - and paying more attention to rollover resistance in the design of new models. Moreover, while the American experience is instructive, it is unlikely to be replicated in Britain precisely. Strong popular and governmental opposition to the vehicles, as well as the higher fuel prices prevalent in Europe, impose limits on their likely popularity; and they do face a tighter regulatory environment here, compared to the U.S., where their classification as light trucks allows them to escape many of the regulations aimed at passenger vehicles. As they become increasingly common in Britain, however, it remains to be seen whether SUVs can ever become "good citizens" of the road and offer their drivers safety levels comparableto that of normal vehicles, much less the additional security they were oncethought to provide or whether they'll be perceived as a danger to avoid.

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