In 2000, U.S. drivers bought
more than 2.8 million SUVs, about 17 percent of all vehicles sold.
Those figures represented a 4.6 percent increase in sales over the
previous year, according to industry reports.
But just as their popularity has grown, so has the outcry that
SUVs are too big, too dangerous to others on the road, too inefficient
with fuel and too polluting.
In our special report, we round up some of the main points of debate
surrounding the controversial vehicles, take a look at what's happening
on the safety front, and offer tips for driving larger vehicles.
Just as with any car, some of the risks associated with SUVs apply
to their own occupants, and some of the risks apply to others on
SUVs are heavier and ride higher than smaller cars. Their height
increases the likelihood that they'll roll over in accidents. According
to National Highway Traffic Safety Association, SUVs roll over in
37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to a 15 percent rollover rate
for passenger cars. Smaller SUVs - with a wheelbase of under 100
inches - have a disproportionately high incidence of fatal rollover
In 1999, rollovers accounted for thousands of serious injuries
and more than 10,000 deaths in accidents - more than side and rear
crashes combined, according to NHTSA. SUVS, due in part to risky
driving, high center of gravity and narrow wheel base, have the
highest number of rollovers per 100 vehicles in NHTSA research.
NHTSA also examined the design of various SUVs in 1999 and determined
that their height and frames posed risks to occupants of smaller
cars. The study said that 2,000 people (five percent of the country's
traffic fatalities in a year) would have survived if their accidents
had involved a car rather than an SUV, and that light trucks and
SUVs are twice as likely as a smaller car to cause a fatality in
the struck car.
The severity of the damage to other cars in accidents results in
large part from SUV design. SUVs ride about eight inches higher
than cars, so when contact occurs in an accident, SUVs connect with
cars at a more vulnerable and potentially dangerous height than
say, a bumper. They also have a more rigid frame - involving two
steel rails, rather than one, as most cars have.
Other aspects of SUV design also pose safety considerations to
those in smaller cars. One example is headlight placement. Large
SUVs have headlights mounted about the same height as side mirrors
on some cars. This causes glare that resembles someone driving close
behind with high beams on, which can impair the vision of drivers
in smaller cars.
Some auto enthusiasts argue that part of the safety risk comes
from drivers getting behind the wheel of an SUV without training
in how to operate a vehicle that's much larger and drives quite
differently from sedans or compact cars. This risk is compounded
by the decreased visibility of drivers in smaller cars, who can't
see as much of what is happening in traffic because the taller vehicles
are blocking their view of the road ahead.
A combination of all of the above - facts, statistics, and opinions
- have combined to fuel debate over how serious the risks are for
drivers and passengers of SUVs, and those who share the road with
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