Are SUVs a Menace to Other Cars on the Road?
by Barbara McCuen
Tuesday, May 23, 2000
In early May 2000, the Ford Motor Company shocked auto industry watchers by acknowledging in its annual "corporate citizenship report" that sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have more safety problems than cars. Ford Chairman William Ford, Jr. explained to shareholders that Ford had to admit the problems with SUVs or risk having a reputation for dishonesty like tobacco companies.
Among the safety problems named in the report were the tendency of SUVs to override smaller cars during and accident and to tip over during a skid. SUVs are enormously popular with consumers, and extremely profitable for carmakers. The profit margin for some models is as high as $15,000 per vehicle. Despite its admission of safety concerns, Ford has no plans to stop making SUVs.
As safety concerns have mounted, the federal government and private industry have been studying ways to make SUVs safer. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has finally approved a system that rates the rollover risk of the various models of SUVs."
New technology, developed mostly by European car manufacturers, may be adopted by U.S. companies to make SUVs safer. Electronic stability control systems involve sensors that detect when the vehicle loses traction and automatically applies brakes to appropriate wheel. These systems could prevent a vehicle from tipping over by stopping a skid before it starts. Mercedes already uses electronic stability control systems in several models, and General Motors, Toyota and Ford have announced plans test the systems.
On One Hand...
SUVs present an enormous danger to other drivers on the road. Numerous federally sponsored studies show that car occupants are more likely to be killed when struck with by a SUV than by another car. Ironically, many SUV drivers say they buy the big vehicles because they make them "feel safe," but SUVs with their higher setting and heavier weight are more likely to roll over when coming to a quick stop or swerving to avoid an accident. SUV manufacturers should do more to ensure the safety of SUV drivers and other vehicles on the road.
On the Other Hand...
SUV height and weight provide drivers with safety and crash protection advantages. Although anti-SUV activists complain that the vehicle pose a threat to smaller cars, a June 1998 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report on vehicle compatibility crash tests indicated that SUVs do not pose unusual risks for car occupants, and that their performance is similar to full-size cars. These tests raise the question of whether or not smaller cars should be redesigned to better withstand crashes with all vehicles, not just SUVs. And SUV manufacturers are responding to calls for safer vehicles - the Mercedes-Benz M-class SUV has lower front ends which are more compatible to those in cars.
* Light trucks crashing into cars accounts for the majority of fatalities in vehicle-to-vehicle collisions.
* A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that in deaths per million passengers, SUVs had nearly the same death rates in accidents as small cars, but substantially more fatalities than mid-sized or large cars.
* According to federal crash data for 1998, the latest year statistics were available, 9,771 people died in rollover crashes. SUVs rolled over in 36 percent of the fatal crashes they were involved in - more than double the rate for passenger cars. More than 60 percent of the SUV occupants killed in 1998 died in crashes where the vehicle rolled over.
* Ford had announced earlier this year a rollover air bag system that will be phased in over the next three years.
* The immense Ford Excursion weighs as much as two Jeep Grand Cherokees and gets just 10 miles to the gallon in the city and 13 on the highway.
* Sport utilities are three times as likely as cars to kill the other driver in a crash, but the death rate for sport utility occupants is just as high as for car occupants because of sport utilities' tendency to roll over and their lack of crumple zones.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ford Motor Cars, Friends of the Earth, Associated Press