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Are Sports Utility Vehicles Safe? - 2002-09-22

One of several reasons sport utility vehicles are so popular among the American car-buying public is safety. People say they feel safer in a big, tall sport utility vehicle. But are they safer?

Sport utility vehicles are advertised as "macho machines", pictured fighting their way over rugged terrain, as often as not driven by a rugged-looking male. But SUVs are also very popular with women motorists.

The editor-at-large of Car & Driver magazine, Brock Yates, has an explanation. "One of the things that people do not understand is that women very much are attracted to these vehicles for two reasons: One, they feel safe inside them, and their visibility is much-enhanced because they are higher off the ground. They feel more comfortable in heavy traffic situations, because of their 360-degree visibility capability and also because of the convenience of loading groceries, children, pets, etc.," Mr. Yates said.

Keith Crain, the publisher of the industry weekly Automotive News, comments, saying, "People do probably sit up higher and have better visibility, particularly people who are of less [shorter] stature, so that they do get a better command of the road. Whether or not that allows them to avoid accidents I am not sure has ever been proven. But there is no doubt that they feel safer."

The director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, David Cole, offers anecdotal evidence on the issue from his own family.

"I have a young daughter-in-law who is about five [feet] two [inches tall] (1.57m) and she had a serious accident when she was young. And she just really will not drive anything but an SUV, partly because of safety and partly because she does not want to be "looked down upon" by people in trucks and so on," Mr. Cole said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration monitors vehicle accidents, among other things, and we asked spokesman Ray Tyson about the perception that SUVs are safer.

"Depending on what kind of crash you are in, you may have slightly better protection if you are involved in a crash with another vehicle, particularly a passenger car. But, on the other hand, you are driving a vehicle that is much more likely to be involved in a roll-over," Mr. Tyson said.

He explains why the SUV is more likely to end up on its top in an accident. "Sport utility vehicles generally tend to be a little higher off the ground, have a higher center of gravity. As anyone knows who has studied physics, a higher center of gravity very easily translates into a vehicle that is a little less stable," Mr. Tyson said.

So, what is your choice? Head-on crash or roll-over? As with so many other aspects of life, safety and the sport utility vehicle is a matter of perception and compromise.