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Study: SUVs and Pickups Less Deadly in Crashes With Cars

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Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Vehicle Research Center guideA new study shows that today’s SUVs and pickups pose less risk to people in cars and minivans than they did in previous generations. Until recently, SUVs and pickups were more likely than cars or minivans of the same weight to be involved in crashes that killed people in cars or minivans. That is no longer true for SUVs, and the higher risk for pickups has been reduced.

The study, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says the improvement is due to car makers cooperating with The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That agency had asked them to make improvements to the design of SUVs and pickups to make them more compatible with smaller cars in accidents.

After a series of meetings in 2003, the automakers (including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, and Volkswagen) agreed, and redesigned the front ends of SUVs and pickups so that their energy-absorbing structures would line up better with those of cars, reducing the likelihood that an SUV or pickup would override a car in a collision. The improved alignment allows the front ends of an SUV or pickup and a car to manage the crash energy helping to keep it away from occupant compartments. Car makers accomplished this by either lowering the height of an SUV or pickup’s primary structure or by adding a secondary structure.

The car companies also agreed to strengthen head protection in all vehicles, to prevent injuries when an SUV or pickup strikes another vehicle on the side. They did this by adding more head-protecting side airbags, which reduced fatality rates in side impact crashes by almost 50%. Electronic stability control (ESC), an auto safety feature now required on new cars by the federal government, also helped to decrease the number of fatalities.

“Pickups lagged behind other vehicles in getting ESC, and designs of some top-selling models were slow to change. Those facts help explain why the numbers didn’t improve as much for pickups as for SUVs,” said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s chief administrative officer and a co-author of the new study. “Also, pickups often carry loads, so the trucks in these crashes could be a good deal heavier than their curb weights.”

As Ashley Halsey III writes in The Washington Post,

In 1996, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that 2,000 people killed in crashes would have survived if their vehicle had collided with a sedan rather than a heavier SUV or pickup truck.

At the time, auto manufacturers, who were making almost half their sales in the light truck category, which includes SUVs, said the unfortunate trend was mostly a matter of weight winning when vehicles collided.

The IIHS conducted its study using data on crash deaths from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and registration information from R.L. Polk & Co. In the study, Institute researchers looked at one-to-four-year-old SUVs, pickups, and cars/minivans in 2000-01 and 2008-09, and compared the number of car and minivan occupants killed in two-vehicle crashes with those models per million registered vehicle years.

Despite the recent improvements, there are some people who say that problems still exist, including the following two, who posted comments below The Washington Post article. “JoeOvercoat” writes:

The article does not address the greater question: have SUVs made our roads safer, or more dangerous? Given rollover, SUVs may not be any safer than cars: they certainly aren’t in the case of catastrophic tire failure. SUVs seem to make the road more difficult to navigate by blocking line of sight. SUVs themselves seem to have poor lines of sight that can lead to accidents during lane changes and the like (one of the ‘safety improvements’ for cars was to raise the minumum trunk height, with designs solutions that sacrifice line of sight in the process). So did America buy more safety when it bought and filled its roads with SUVs, or was that just another sales pitch/ case of wishful thinking?

And “j_s_nightingale” writes:

And what is the rate of death when any of these behemoths ‘collide with’ a pedestrian or cyclist? The most dangerous part of a car or SUV is still the nut behind the wheel.

Here is a video in which the IIHS discusses this recent research study:

Image by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, used under Fair Use: Reporting.