Study: SUVs safer than cars in head-on crashes

By Posted : 05/21/2013

SUVs safer in head-on crashes, according to studyEven if your passenger car has a better accident safety rating than a sports-utility vehicle (SUV), you still face four times the risk of dying in a head-on crash with a bigger, heavier SUV, according to a new university study.

It gets even grimmer if the SUV has a better crash rating than the passenger car -- the University of Buffalo (UB) study found that your chance of dying then jumps to 10 times higher.

Dietrich Jehle, a UB professor of emergency medicine at Erie County Medical Center and the report's lead author, says it usually comes down to the weight or size of the SUV. (See: "Less is more: Tiny cars have highest car insurance injury claims.")

"When two vehicles are involved in a crash, the overwhelming majority of fatalities occur in the smaller and lighter of the two vehicles," he says. "But even when the two vehicles are of similar weights, outcomes are still better in the SUVs, which tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, due to bumper mismatch, crushing the occupant of the passenger car."

The UB study concludes that consumers shouldn't rely only on crash ratings -- which usually focus on tests involving models of similar size -- when purchasing a new vehicle.

"Along with price and fuel efficiency, car safety ratings are one of the things that consumers rely on when shopping for an automobile, but vehicles with excellent safety ratings may provide a false degree of confidence to the buyer regarding the relative safety of these vehicles," Jehle says.

The UB study analyzed federal statistics on more than 83,500 head-on crashes from 1995 to 2010 that resulted in a death. Other key findings:

  • Passenger car drivers had a seven times higher chance of dying than SUV drivers in all head-on crashes, regardless of their vehicle accident safety ratings.
  • When considering safety ratings, the driver of a passenger car with a lower rating had a little over one times higher risk of dying in a head-on crash with a higher-rated passenger car.

The five-star crash rating system, which often guides motorists when buying a car, was first created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1978. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a separate, highly publicized rating structure that consumers also follow.

The UB study says there's value in the ratings when evaluating similar vehicles; but beyond that, people should study the overall safety records of individual cars. Jehle praised SUVs, noting that designers have reduced rollover dangers in recent years.

"Currently, the larger SUVs are some of the safest cars on the roadways with fewer rollovers," he says.

Safety ratings and car insurance

Safety ratings can provide more than a measure of confidence on the highway -- they can impact your car insurance rates. Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute (III), says insurers often consider a vehicle's safety when underwriting policies. (See: "Learn how car insurance rates work - and how to save money.")

"There are many factors that go into auto rates, including the cost to repair a car, its overall safety record and the likelihood of theft," says to Worters. "How much damage a car receives in an accident has an impact on how badly injured a person can be as well. With rising medical costs, in connection with personal injury protection coverage, it can have a huge bearing on the cost of a policy." (See: "5 ways to compare car insurance companies.")

The IIHS releases latest SUV ratings

Jehle may applaud SUVs, but the IIHS' latest round of testing shows there's room for improvement. Only two of the 13 models fared well in a new type of frontal crash test, with the 2014 Subaru Forester receiving a "good" rating and the 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport deemed "acceptable." Both vehicles also scored well in four other crash tests, earning the "Top Safety Pick Plus" award. To qualify for the Plus award, a vehicle must earn good ratings in four of five tests, and no less than acceptable in the fifth. Adrian Lund, the IIHS's president, says "the small-overlap" test was added this year to see how cars can handle a front-corner collision, either with an object like a tree or utility pole or another car. For the full list, visit IIHS small SUV ratings.

IIHS still awards Top Safety Pick (no plus) to vehicles that earn good ratings in four crash tests - moderate-overlap front, side, rear and rollover -- no matter how well they perform on the new small-overlap frontal crash test. For example, the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, received  "marginal" or "poor" scores in the Top Safety Pick Plus tests, but still performed well enough to earn the Top Safety Pick designation.

Of the SUVs that rated "poor" for the new test, three do have the distinction of making Insure.com's list of the least expensive 2013 vehicles to insure. The Kia Sportage (four-cylinder model) came in fourth, with an average annual premium of $1,157. The Jeep Patriot Sport (four-cylinder) was fifth, at $1,160. The Hyundai Tucson GL (four-cylinder) took tenth spot, with a $1,204 premium. (See: "The most and least expensive 2013 vehicles to insure.")

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