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New study says SUVs are less of a threat to cars in crashes

Consumer Reports News: September 28, 2011 02:38 PM

Ten years ago when an SUV or pickup was involved in a crash with a car or minivan of the same weight, the result was often deadly to occupants of the car or minivan. Now with changes to vehicle structures, SUVs aren’t nearly as dangerous as they were before, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The IIHS studied 1-4 year old SUVs and pickups, cars and minivans from two eras, 2000-2001 and 2008-2009. It compared the number of people in cars and minivans killed in 2-vehicle crashes with SUVs or pickups. In 2000-2001, 44 people were killed in such crashes per million registered vehicle years. In 2008-2009 that number dropped by almost two-thirds to 16.

Comparing crashes in 2000-2001 with those in 2008-2009, deaths declined for all weight categories except for the small number of cars and minivans over 4,500 lb.

IIHS notes that the results don’t contradict the laws of physics and that small cars are going to fare worse in a crash with a larger, heavier vehicle. In the early and later periods studied, deaths in cars and minivans hit by SUVs or pickups generally went up with higher vehicle weight, but in the earlier period, SUVs were more deadly to people in cars and pickups were worse than SUVs.

The study credits the improvements to two main factors: improved crash protection in cars and minivans with the addition of side airbags and stronger body structure, and redesigned front ends of SUVs and pickups that are better at absorbing crash energy and line up better with the frames of cars and minivans.

Electronic stability control (ESC) has also helped reduce deaths in SUVs and pickups in single-vehicle crashes. Following an initiative by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, IIHS, and auto manufacturing industry groups, automakers installed ESC on SUVs years earlier than the 2012 mandate required.

Following the installation of ESC on almost all SUV models, the IIHS earlier this year rated SUVs the safest vehicle type. Their weight and crash structure gives them the best occupant protection of any vehicle type, and the installation of ESC, and new car-based chassis means that is no longer offset by higher fatality rates in single-vehicle crashes.

Pickups, however, fared worse in this latest IIHS study, because they didn’t receive needed updates as quickly as SUVs, and lagged behind other vehicles in getting ESC. The heavier loads pickups carry may also have contributed to higher accident rates.

Liza Barth

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