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SUV Safety:
What's The Big Deal?

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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.

SUV Risks

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 the road.

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 crashes.

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 them.

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