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Which SUVs are safe?

First of all, if you're not driving properly and wearing a seatbelt, no car is safe. But as more studies are undertaken and research sheds light on just what the safety issues are, some automakers are responding, which will continue to mean more safety features in coming years.

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Consumer advocacy groups and the government are both involved in this effort as well. In response to calls for safety standards, NHTSA developed a system in 2000 to rate rollover risks in vehicles. Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, called the system inadequate because tests didn't measure moving vehicles. Congress has directed NHTSA to create a new test by late 2002 that would be based on actual road handling.

Recent developments on the safety front include a government mandate that all SUVs with a wheelbase of 110 inches or less display rollover risk warning labels, and the progress toward rollover crash tests and ratings by late 2002.

Rolling over isn't the only safety concern, though. In 2000, Consumer Reports also criticized limited load capacity in some SUVs, pointing out that while cargo areas may be large, the load capacity (how much weight a vehicle can safely carry including passengers and cargo) is low enough that it can easily be exceeded. Some SUVs hit capacity with five 180-pound adults in them - not counting any groceries or gear.

A related problem: Not every manufacturer displays load capacity information, which can make it difficult to know whether a vehicle is overloaded.

Since that criticism was made, some automakers said they would start providing that information. Ford, for example, said it would begin using doorjamb stickers for its SUVs and pickups. Jeep and Mercedes are two that already make the numbers accessible.

In summer of 2001 Consumer Reports rated the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited "not acceptable" because it tipped onto two wheels making sharp turns at 37 miles per hour. Mitsubishi disputed the magazine's conclusion.

Consumer Reports has only given that rating three other times in the past 13 years. In 1988, the Suzuki Samurai received that rating, and in 1996 the Isuzu Trooper and Acura SLX received it. That same year, the Ford Bronco II was criticized for having a tendency to tip.

In 1997, the Mercedes-Benz A-class was recalled and the problem fixed after it rolled over in similar tests.

Based on government and consumer groups' research, the safest SUVs to drive and ride in are those that have a wider wheel base and a higher load capacity, and ride closer to the ground. For drivers of very small cars, the safest thing to do is try and steer clear of large SUVs, especially if they're traveling at high speeds.

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