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Why SUVs Are Less Safe Than Minivans

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).

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2009 at 1:18 pm and is filed under Cars, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Why SUVs Are Less Safe Than Minivans”

  1. chrismealy Says:

    Horsepower! It’s gotta be horsepower. Horsepower makes people do stupid things.

  2. Kris Peeters Says:

    It would be interesting to have statistical information about involvement of different car types in car crashes. A hypothesis could for instance be: BMW’s are significantly more involved in car crashes than other cars.
    If the hypothesis would be confirmed, the next question is: is that due to the concept/design of the cars or due to the kind of drivers they attract?
    In any case we can expect to find the following combinations on the road:
    - dangerous (or risky)drivers with dangerous cars
    - careful drivers with dangerous cars
    - careful drivers with ‘careful’ (or safe) cars
    - dangerous drivers with ‘careful’ cars
    It would be possible to figure out which factor is the most important (the car or the driver) and what is the result of each ‘cocktail’.
    To me it always seems remarkable how it is (at least in Europe) accepted to speak about a street or road ‘inviting’ the people to misbehave (= driving to fast). The factor ‘car’ on the other hand is rarely blamed. It is no less than a taboo.
    However a car is the only product in the world ‘designed for being abused’.
    (more about this in my new book coming out later this year – only in Dutch, for which I apologize…)

  3. Lee Watkins Says:

    I think confidence plays a roll. For example car owners that rate themselves as the most confident, are most likely to choose an emerald green car, followed by a dark blue car. When I posted this information an a blog, a police officer replied that green cars seemed to be the most frequently involved in crashes.

    I thought similarly SUV’s have are taller seating position and large dominating appearance that seems to inspire confidence. Isn’t it this boost in confidence that increases the vehicle accident rate? Risk compensation at work.

  4. Joel Says:

    There was an article in the New Yorker maybe 4 or 5 years ago (it’s possible that Tom V. wrote it. Can’t recall) that was mainly about passive vs. active safety, but delved into SUVs and the marketing of them. I seem to remember some quotes about SUV buyers being the group most likely to say they lacked confidence in their driving ability (before buying the SUV).

    To me it looks like there’s definitely a good bit of self selection bias at work.

  5. DoctorJayB Says:

    One big difference is visibility. SUVs often have dark-tinted windows with larger pillars and high seat backs. Often minivans have a front seat that’s higher than the back seats, tint that’s less dark, and narrower pillars. Lower center of gravity, and a better view of the road immediately around the minivan would contribute to less damaging crashes.

  6. Bryan Willman Says:

    There might also be a selection effect.

    Minivans are really only minivans. It’s a relatively narrow category.

    SUV often means anything with 4 wheel drive. 4WD per force means greater height and therefore more likelyhood of rollovers. But are Jeeps and Escalades really in the same risk or behavoir groups?

    As for behavoir, perhaps only safe parent types drive minivans, while all sorts of people including safe parent types drive “suvs”.

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