SUVs have come a long way in the last decade. Overall, they handle better, ride more comfortably, and get better fuel economy. And according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, they’re also now among the safest vehicles on the road. In fact, in its analysis of 2011 crash fatalities, the IIHS found that late-model SUVs—one to three years old—have the lowest death rate of any vehicle category.
These newer SUVs accounted for a relatively low 26 occupant deaths per million registered passenger vehicles, which is far better than cars, with an occupant-fatality rate of 62, or pickup trucks, with 72. The differences are even starker when we look just at driver deaths. In that snapshot, the death rate was only 18 per million for SUVs vs. 43 for cars and 54 for pickups.
Rollover deaths are down
Historically, rollover crashes have been the Achilles’ heel of SUVs. And taller vehicles such as SUVs are still more prone to roll over than cars, which are lower to the ground. All vehicle types have improved a lot in this area in the last 10 years, but SUVs have improved the most. Again, looking just at 1-to-3-year-old vehicles, in single-vehicle rollover crashes, the driver death rate per million vehicles for passenger cars dropped from 18 in 2000 to 8 in 2011. With SUVs, driver deaths dropped from 42 to 4.
Many factors have contributed to this turnaround, including improvements in vehicle design and a move to car-based SUVs. But the biggest factor is probably the increased use of electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver. ESC is designed to help prevent a vehicle from skidding or sliding in a turn, and it’s especially valuable in slippery conditions and when swerving to avoid an obstacle. Phased in over the last decade, ESC became mandatory for all 2012 and later models.
Of course, driver demographics play a role in these statistics. SUVs are often driven by middle-aged people, who tend to drive more conservatively than younger people. By contrast, young male drivers, who represent the largest risk group overall, often flock to small cars and compact pickups because of their lower prices. Perhaps understandably, in 2011 fairly new subcompacts had almost twice the driver fatality rate of fairly new midsized cars, according to the IIHS. And the fatality rate of compact pickups lately has been similar. Still, even that death rate was about equal to the average car’s in 2008, so things are improving.