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Fatalities lowest in minivans, SUVs

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Posted: 7 am ET

It's long been an article of faith among SUV haters that any safety advantage they had over cars was canceled out by their tendency to flip over at the drop of a hat. That may once have been true, but a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that electronic stability control, or ESC, has largely solved that problem.

Nowadays, drivers of SUVs are just behind drivers of minivans as the least likely to die in a vehicle crash. From the study:

The overall driver death rate for 2005-08 models during 2006-09 was 48 per million registered vehicle years. Rates for each of the more than 150 vehicles span a huge range from 0 for 7 models to 143 for the Nissan 350Z sports car. When the rates are looked at by vehicle style, minivans have the best record with a driver death rate of 25. SUVs aren't far behind at 28. Pickups average 52 driver deaths per million registration years. Cars average 56, but smaller cars fare worse than bigger ones. For example, 4-door minicars have a death rate of 82, compared with 46 for very large 4-doors.

"The rollover risk in SUVs used to outweigh their size/weight advantage, but that's no longer the case, thanks to ESC," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research.

Whenever I write a post about the need to adjust to higher gas prices by transitioning to high-mileage vehicles, readers often raise vehicle safety as a major obstacle to ditching their SUVs.

This study would tend to show they have a point, but what's interesting is that the difference between fatalities isn't entirely explained by SUVs being big and hulking:

It's not just weight that gives SUVs an advantage. It's also their height and other factors. When cars and SUVs of similar weight are compared, the SUVs have lower death rates.

That last bit appears to imply you can have your cake and eat it, too: Small, 2-wheel-drive SUVs all performed really well in the study, and most of them have pretty good fuel economy numbers as well:

  1. 2007-08 Honda CR-V: 22 deaths per million registration years, 23 mpg combined
  2. 2007-08 Toyota RAV4: 34 deaths per million registration years, 23 mpg combined
  3. 2005-08 Hyundai Tucson: 39 deaths per million registration years, 22 mpg combined
  4. 2008 Ford Escape: 42 deaths per million registration years, 23 mpg combined
  5. 2005-08 Kia Sportage: 58 deaths per million registration years, 22 mpg combined

But the question for me became, if it wasn't about size and weight, what makes SUVs safer in the real world? I get how the difference in height would protect some people at the margins. Because SUVs sit higher than cars, when they collide with cars, their passengers may sit above the point of impact. That probably doesn't work out too well for the car drivers, since they end up with an SUV bumper in their face, but still, it makes sense.

But the phrase, "other factors" gave me pause. I asked IIHS spokesman Russ Rader about what those "other factors" might be, and he says that largely refers to how SUVs are used.

"SUVs have become the family vehicle of choice, and moms and dads are among the safest drivers," Rader says. "In this report, we're trying to zero in on the vehicle itself, and to do that, we have adjusted for a variety of things that can affect crash rates, such as driver age and gender, urban vs. rural, and things like that. But you can't entirely dial out the driver factor."

I sympathize with the IIHS researchers here. Doing this kind of real-world study on how well our cars protect us is incredibly valuable, because collision tests conducted in closed warehouses will never be able to capture the events that happen in the real world with 100 percent accuracy.

But on the other hand, can Nissan help it if everyone who buys its 350Z is looking for high-speed thrills? Will any amount of safety engineering save adrenaline junkies from themselves?

What do you think? Are SUVs really safer? If so, why?

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