PART 1

I thought the fact Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) basically suck had been firmly established in the American psyche. I mean how many newspaper, magazine, and internet articles stating “SUVs Basically Suck” does it take before the public awakens from its self-delusional stupor and admits these things are about as safe as kissing a rattlesnake? But as a result of a recent (rather heated) discussion on an internet message board, I now realize blind ignorance on the subject still runs rampant through the population. So we here at net-monster.com, being socially conscious and aware of our ever-growing visibility, decided to settle the issue once and for all. We hope. In that spirit, here’s a list of all the myths SUV supporters cling to in their hopeless attempt to justify the unjustifiable, and the facts as they really are.

“I REALLY NEED AN SUV”

It’s been said that if you want a good laugh, just ask an SUV owner to justify his purchase. On that message board, one person claimed she bought an SUV because she needed a vehicle which was “affordable and reliable.” I can envision the car salesman pointing across the lot and saying, “See that SUV with the $10,000 markup in between the two with the $15,000 markups? That’s the affordable one.” Another stated her parents both had bad backs. Apparently, the only seats which are suitable for bad backs come encased in 4500 lbs. of steel. Give me a break, people.

By far the most common reason cited runs something like, “I need an SUV to negotiate the war-torn dirt roads of Upper Buttcrack during the latest nor’easter.” Well, even if we accept this as true (although it causes one to wonder what the Upper Buttcrackians did before the SUV fad hit), can I count on your promise to keep that thing in Upper Buttcrack and stay the hell away from the rest of us? What do you mean, no? And for those of you incapable of finding any car with enough power to tow your boat (methinks you’re not looking hard enough), I then assume the only time I’ll see you driving your ticking bomb is with a trailer attached. Correct? Absolutely none of which even begins to explain all the SUVs I see on the streets of Los Angeles, where the steepest hill is about 10 degrees and not a single snowflake falls all year ’round.

“LARGE CARS ARE JUST AS DANGEROUS”

Bullshit. I think it’s time for a visual aid:

Here is what typically happens when an SUV plows into a passenger car. If you look closely, you may be able to tell the car is an Escort, although it wasn’t a convertible until after the crash. The car’s two occupants had their lives abruptly ended at the scene. Safety devices such as bumpers, crumple zones, seat belts, air bags, side impact beams, etc. became irrelevant when the SUV “intruded” into the passenger compartment. The SUV assumed its normal position of being on its roof after the collision. The driver emerged unscathed.

The added mass of SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks (collectively classified as Light Truck Vehicles, or “LTVs”) is only one of the factors making them so dangerous. The conservation of momentum during a collision basically assures that any vehicle averaging between 4000 and 5000 lbs. (e.g., an LTV) will get the better of a vehicle averaging about 2900 lbs. (e.g., a passenger car). During the collision, the heavier vehicle will slow down or stop. The lighter vehicle will be bounced backward in the direction it came, resulting in the type of exceedingly high accelerations which lead to serious head, neck, and chest injuries. The assertion that heavier cars will cause similar results is correct, although the larger SUVs are considerably heavier than the largest passenger cars.

But it gets worse. LTVs (and SUVs in particular) ride higher than passenger cars, resulting in a misalignment of load paths during a collision. In a frontal collision, the SUV often rides over the bumper and crumple zones of the car and heads directly for the passenger compartment. Basically, every safety device engineers have spent the past decade designing into cars is circumvented, and the result ends up looking like the picture above. In side collisions, the SUV tends to override the top edge of the door and once again plow into the passenger compartment at head or chest level.

The third reason LTVs are so hazardous is inherent in their outdated “frame on rail” design. Most cars now make use of the more modern “unibody construction” which deforms more during a collision and absorbs some of the energy. In addition, front fenders and trunks are specifically designed to crush upon impact (the so-called “crumple zones”), further absorbing energy and leaving the passenger compartment intact. But the relatively stiff front ends of LTVs absorb little energy on impact, and instead transmit it directly to the other vehicle and to the LTV’s passengers themselves.

I know what you’re thinking. If all this is true, the crash statistics should prove it out. And they do, in spades. Although only one out of every three registered vehicles is an LTV, collisions between LTVs and cars now account for more of the nation’s traffic fatalities than any other type of two-vehicle collision. This statistic has proven true for every year since 1992, with 80% of the fatalities being occupants of the car.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) compiled a list of all passenger vehicles based on their “aggressivity” in 1996 crash statistics. Aggressivity was essentially a measure of how likely a vehicle is to fatally injure the drivers of other vehicles on the road. Every vehicle in the top 20 of the list was an LTV. When the vehicles were categorized, the most aggressive cars (the “Large Car” group) ranked below the least aggressive LTVs (“Minivans”). In other words, there was no overlap between the aggressivity of cars and LTVs – all categories of LTVs were clearly and significantly more lethal in crashes.

Want more? For every head-on collision between an SUV and a car, the driver of the car is 6 times more likely to die. For a van-car collision, this ratio is about 5:1, and for pickup truck-car collisions it’s about 3:1. This led the NHTSA to conclude

Clearly, the fatality toll in car-LTV frontal crashes is disproportionately shouldered by the drivers of passenger cars.

Even more telling are the statistics for when one vehicle crashes into the side of the other. All vehicles are especially vulnerable to such side-impact crashes. For a car-car collision (to the driver’s side), the driver of the struck car is 6.6 times more likely to die than the driver of the striking car. But when the striking vehicle is an SUV, that ratio rises to 30:1. A 1999 University of Michigan study frequently quoted in the literature concluded that in 1996 alone, 2000 people died in traffic accidents for no other reason than that the vehicle which struck them was an SUV, light truck, or minivan rather than another car.

“I DRIVE AN SUV BECAUSE IT’S SAFE”

SUVs as a group do not perform particularly well in crashes when the other vehicle is not a significantly smaller passenger car. In addition to their well-known propensity to perform barrel rolls at the most inopportune moments, they’re not real keen at protecting the driver during a collision either. In NHTSA crash tests of year 2000 SUVs, none of the models tested earned the maximum five-star rating for protecting the driver in a frontal crash. Most earned four stars, while the Chevy Blazer, GMC Jimmy/Envoy, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Oldsmobile Bravada only earned three. The poor Dodge Durango earned only two stars out of five. Nor is the situation any better with 2000 model pickup trucks. It should also be noted that in single-vehicle crashes, additional weight carries no increase in safety. In fact, a 5000 lb. vehicle traveling at 55 mph will crash into a concrete abutment with twice the kinetic energy of a 2500 lb. vehicle traveling at the same speed.

 The picture to the right is the unfortunate result of an SUV colliding head-on with a pickup truck at normal highway speed. The accident was fatal to both drivers. The next time you’re feeling invincible in that bright, shiny SUV you’re riding in, picture this image in your head. Better yet, print it out and clip it to the sun visor.

Not only do SUVs underperform in crashes, they’re also more likely to get you into an accident in the first place. They’re not as maneuverable as cars, and any sudden back and forth evasive action at highway speeds poses a large threat that you’ll end up scraping the roof on the macadam. SUVs are notorious for requiring unusually large stopping distances, and although their large mass is a contributing factor, it seems to be a fact of life that the brakes on these behemoths consistently underperform their passenger car counterparts. Observe the bar graph below which compares the braking distances of SUVs to cars of a similar weight:

The cars and SUVs in the figure above all have anti-lock braking systems. The models were selected because of similarity in curb weight. The listed cars are all luxury models, but this was unavoidable since the only cars which approach the weight of SUVs are the full-size luxury models. There are many SUV models which are considerably heavier, but which weren’t included here.

The lightest car in the figure is only about 300 pounds less than the heaviest SUV. Furthermore, if the car data and the SUV data are analyzed separately, there is no discernible correlation between vehicle weight and stopping distance within either group. In other words, all of the vehicles in the figure appear to be close enough to each other in weight that weight isn’t an important differentiating factor.

Yet when the car and SUV data are compared to one another, there is a clear difference between the two groups. The following figure shows the same data, only sorted by stopping distance instead of vehicle weight:

With the exception of the Toyota 4Runner’s respectable showing, there is no overlap between the required stopping distances for the cars and those for the SUVs. Something besides weight is causing the SUVs to have consistently poorer braking capabilities. And although the difference might appear small, on average the SUV group required 10% more stopping distance than the car group. This is a significant amount, and basically means two things:

1. As you’re jamming your foot down in a panic on your SUV’s brake pedal, keep in mind that your brakes aren’t as good as they could be. And they’re probably not as good as the ones in the car in front of you jamming on its brakes, either.

2. A difference in stopping distance of only 5 or 10 feet could spell the difference between a close call and an event which will change the rest of your life.

So next time you’re at your Ford dealer, you might want to ask him why an Explorer requires 148 feet to brake from 60-0, when a Crown Victoria of similar weight can do it in 136. Please e-mail me the answer, ’cause I’m dying to find out.

Coming in the next installment:

 

  • The mentality of SUV drivers, and why it pisses me off
  • The myth that SUV dangers are a “myth”
  • Recent developments in the whole squalid SUV affair

SOURCES:

[1] SAE Paper 980908
“The Aggressivity of Light Trucks and Vans in Traffic Crashes”
by Hampton G. Gabler and William T. Hollowell
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
http://www.sbes.vt.edu/gabler/publications/980908.pdf

[2] “How to choose a safe family car”
http://familyautoguide.com/7-passenger-cars/

[3] “LIGHT TRUCKS, HEAVY RISK: A special report”
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/24/business/light-trucks-heavy-risk-a-special-report-a-deadly-highway-mismatch-ignored.html?mcubz=0