It’s long been known that SUVs are hardly the safest vehicles on the road, both for their occupants and the occupants of other cars (as well as pedestrians and cyclists).
A recent study published in Injury Prevention, “Non-fatal and fatal crash injury risk for children in minivans compared with children in sport utility vehicles” M.J. Kallan, K. B. Arbogast, M.R. Elliott, and D.R. Durbin, looks specifically at the safety of child occupants of those vehicles, and finds minivans come out on top.
In the New York Times “Wheels” blog, one of the study’s authors, Dennis Durbin, explains the findings:
When it came to crashes that caused injuries but not deaths, Dr. Dennis Durbin of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention said children in minivans were 35 percent less likely to be hurt than children in S.U.V.’s.
Dr. Durbin, who drives a minivan, isn’t sure what is behind that, but he had a couple of theories. One was that the structure of the minivan may absorb energy better than a body-on-frame S.U.V. The other was that there seemed to be more room inside minivans, he said. “There is a lot of space for them to move around in without hitting each other or some component of the vehicle.”
Looking at fatal crashes, there was a 24 percent greater chance of a child being killed in an S.U.V. than a minivan, the researchers found. Dr. Durbin said the reason for that was clear: S.U.V.’s had more rollover crashes. The study found that 66 percent of the S.U.V. fatalities involved a rollover, compared with 37 percent for minivans.
Rollovers, to be sure, account for a great deal of the difference. I might also argue that SUVs are driven differently due to the higher seat position of the driver (they feel as if they are moving more slowly than a driver in a lower vehicle).
But while the study wasn’t able look at driver behavior factors, this should not be overlooked. Different sorts of people are drawn to different vehicles, and they drive them differently. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Leonard Evans’ book Traffic Safety and the Driver. As the chart reproduced below shows (the car models are somewhat antiquated at this point), the crash involvement rate for vehicles was higher in the sedan version of the car than in the station wagon version, and it is generally higher in the two-door models than the four-door models. It is not, as Evans argues, that safety is a matter of simply adding a few more doors, or getting rid of the trunk. It is that “vehicle factors” sometimes matter less than human factors. Compounding the problem of course is that there has been a move away from minivans, never depicted as anything but safe and staid, into SUVs, whose marketing messages and vehicle characteristics are more often oriented toward aggressive driving (in fact there is anecdotal chatter about people moving into SUVs because they didn’t want to be branded with the “soccer mom” pejorative, as if SUVs themselves didn’t now have that legacy).