Myths and Realities
(From High And Mighty)
Myth: SUVs are safer than cars.
Reality: SUVs are no safer than cars for their
occupants, and pose much greater dangers for other road users. SUV
occupants die slightly more often than car occupants in crashes.
The occupant death rate in crashes per million SUVs on the road
is 6 percent higher than the death rate per million cars. The occupant
death rate for the largest SUVs, which tend to be driven by middle-aged
families, is 8 percent higher than the occupant death rate for minivans
and upper-midsize cars like the Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry, which
are typically driven by similar families. SUV occupants are much
more likely than car occupants to die in a rollover, which accounts
for about 1,000 more deaths a year than if the same people had been
in cars. In collisions with other vehicles, however, SUVs are nearly
three times as likely as cars to kill other drivers, inflicting
another 1,000 unnecessary deaths a year among motorists who would
have survived if hit instead by cars of the same weight. SUVs also
contribute much more than cars to air pollution, causing up to 1,000
extra deaths a year among people with respiratory ailments.
Myth: SUVs are good choices for young drivers.
Reality: Parents who care about their children
should not let them drive SUVs. Compared to older drivers, teens’
involvement in multivehicle crashes is above average but their involvement
in single-vehicle crashes is far above average, presumably because
of their inexperience. SUVs are the worst vehicles to be driving
for anyone concerned about single-vehicle crashes. They have limited
crumple zones, providing less protection than a car in an impact
with a solid roadside object like a bridge abutment. Worse, SUVs
are several times more likely to roll over than a car. Rollovers
are the main cause of paralysis in crashes and paralysis can be
an especially heavy burden for a young person to bear.
Parents should also discourage their children from riding in SUVs
driven by other young people. Not only are SUVs unsafe, but insurance
industry statistics show the risk of a fatal crash increases swiftly
the more occupants there are in a vehicle driven by a teen, probably
because inexperienced drivers are more easily distracted.
Young people should drive midsize or full-size sedans, which are
unlikely to flip over, provide ample crumple zones and do not pose
nearly the risk of an SUV to other motorists.
Myth: Rollovers happen to people who drive recklessly but
are of little concern for responsible drivers.
Reality: While inexperienced drivers are more likely
to flip vehicles than experienced drivers, rollovers can happen
to anyone. Federal research, accepted by the auto industry, shows
that 92 percent of all rollovers begin when a vehicle is "tripped."
This can occur when the vehicle strikes a curb, guardrail or another,
lower-riding vehicle. Tripping can also occur when the wheels on
one side of the vehicle pass over a high-friction surface, like
the mud or gravel of a soft road shoulder. While reckless drivers
are more likely to trip their vehicles, any motorist can wind up
in an emergency situation, such as swerving to avoid a pedestrian,
in which tripping is a risk.
Myth: If a drunk driver starts drifting across the centerline
toward you, you are better off in an SUV than in a car.
Reality: On a narrow, crowded or slippery road
with no shoulder, it may not be possible to swerve out of the drunk’s
path. But drunken driving tends to be particularly a problem at
night, when roads are less congested. You have a better chance of
maneuvering out of a drunk’s path in an agile car than in
a tall, lumbering SUV, and you are less likely to roll over in a
car than in an SUV if you swerve across the shoulder. If you are
in a collision, an SUV will typically provide more protection than
a car if it stays upright because of its greater weight and because
its height may allow it to override bumpers and crush the softer
passenger compartment of the drunk’s vehicle. But SUVs are
more likely to roll over in multivehicle collisions as well as single-vehicle
Myth: Vehicles with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive have more
effective brakes than two-wheel-drive vehicles.
Reality: All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive simply
means that the engine is supplying power to turn all four wheels.
These systems help a vehicle accelerate. But this has nothing to
do with braking effectiveness. Indeed, all vehicles have brakes
on all four wheels. Taller, heavier vehicles, including most SUVs,
are harder to stop than shorter, lighter vehicles, including most
cars. Because SUVs are less likely to slip while accelerating on
wet or icy surfaces, their drivers are easily lulled into forgetting
that they cannot stop any better than nearby cars. The most important
factor in braking and steering is the surface area of contact that
the tires have against the road. Many SUV tires actually have less
contact with paved roads than car tires because they have deep,
macho-looking grooves that are designed to let them sink deep into
mud or snow to harder ground below.
Myth: SUVs must be safe vehicles because the overall rate
of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States
has inched down during the last decade even as SUV sales have soared.
Reality: The SUV problem has snuck up on America
because the percentage of all registered vehicles in the nation
that are SUVs has been rising by less than a percentage point a
year. Drunk driving has plunged, seat-belt use has soared and air
bags have become widespread over the last decade, three changes
that should have produced big improvements in American traffic safety.
Yet the deadliness of the nation’s roads has barely changed.
Nearly 42,000 Americans still die on the nation’s roads each
year and 3 million are injured, making traffic accidents one of
the nation’s biggest public health problems.
Myth: Riding up high improves visibility and allows the
driver to anticipate trouble ahead.
Reality: Like sitting on a thick phone directory
at a theater, driving a tall vehicle does improve a motorist’s
view, but at the expense of those driving behind. Drivers of tall
vehicles are able to avoid some crashes by seeing dangerous situations
in advance. But they also increase their odds of rolling over, with
all the risks of death or paralysis that this implies. Tall vehicles
are no safer than short vehicles while putting others in danger.
Myth: The safety problems of SUVs are "growing pains"
that will diminish as safer models come on the market in the next
Reality: Small steps are being taken, like installing hollow
steel bars below the front bumpers of SUVs to reduce the danger
they pose to lower-riding cars. But even the newest SUVs are likely
to prove less stable than cars and more dangerous to other road
users. The biggest problems still lie ahead. The majority of the
SUVs on the road today, including three-quarters of the full-sized
SUVs, were built in the last five years and are still being driven
mainly by middle-aged families. As these vehicles age, their mechanical
parts will begin to deteriorate and they will become more affordable
for young drivers and for drunks, who tend to choose inexpensive
vehicles. At the same time, the proportion of vehicles on the road
that are SUVs is set to nearly double in the next decade or so.
SUVs make up only 10 percent of registered vehicles now, but this
is likely to catch up eventually with the 17 percent of new vehicle
sales that are SUVs
Myth: Only an SUV can provide the room that families with
Reality: Midsize and large cars provide the same seating
room as midsize SUVs. The trunks of the larger cars often have just
as much floor space for groceries, although they are not as tall
as the cargo areas of SUVs. Minivans, which are built like tall
cars, offer seating for seven as well as tall cargo areas. Very
few families need the slightly greater interior space offered by
the very largest SUVs.
Myth: SUV air pollution does not matter because they are
less dirty than the cars of a generation ago.
Reality: Big SUVs are allowed to emit up to 1.1 grams per
mile of smog-causing nitrogen oxides, which is less than the 3 to
4 grams a mile from cars of the early 1960s but still a lot worse
than today’s cars, which are only allowed to emit up to 0.2
grams per mile. The air quality in most American cities has been
improving, but further improvements require constant effort. Before
leaving office in 2001, President Clinton issued regulations requiring
that cars and SUVs emit no more than 0.07 grams per mile by 2009,
a rule that ought not to be relaxed.
Myth (version 1): The rise of SUVs is a principal cause
of global warming.
Myth (version 2): SUVs are unimportant to global warming.
Reality: The truth lies somewhere in between. Most scientists
say that human activity is helping to tip the balance of nature
toward a warming of the Earth’s climate, the so-called greenhouse
effect, but the extent of the human contribution is uncertain. Automobiles
emit 19.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, a global-warming gas, for each
gallon of gasoline they burn, as carbon from the gasoline is combined
with oxygen from the air passing through the grille. SUVs, with
their gas-guzzling ways, account for far less than 1 percent of
all human emissions of global-warming gases. But SUVs are nevertheless
an especially wasteful contributor to global warming. Switching
from a midsize car to a large SUV for a year consumes as much energy
as leaving a refrigerator door open for six years. Americans’
attachment to their SUVs has helped make it very hard for presidents
to commit the United States to steep reductions in total emissions
of global-warming gases, and this has crippled international efforts
to address global warming.
Myth: SUVs need to have primitive, gas-guzzling engines
to provide the necessary power for towing large objects.
Reality: Automakers’ lobbyists have used this argument
for years to fight tougher fuel-economy rules, but many of their
own engineers disagree. Many SUV engines still have just two valves
for each cylinder, an antiquated, gas-guzzling design often defended
by lobbyists as necessary for providing extra power. But with careful
design of the combustion chamber, engines with four valves for each
cylinder can be very effective for towing. "You can take a
four-valve engine and soup it up at the low end," said Tanvir
Ahmad, GM’s engine director. Some of the newest SUVs on the
market have four-valve engines, including the full-size Toyota Sequoia
and GM’s midsize Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile
Bravada. Using four valves instead of two not only produces an immediate
improvement in fuel economy but allows the introduction of further
technologies that are just emerging from laboratories that save
even more gasoline, like variable valve timing. The problem is that
designing new combustion chambers is very expensive. Compared to
two-valve engines, four-valve engines also have more parts, making
them slightly more costly to manufacture. Automakers have been reluctant
to invest the money in switching existing SUV models to four-valve
designs. "I don’t think there is any conversion to four-valve
that is cheap," Ahmad said.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Reality: For the truly self-centered person who cares nothing
about hurting other people in crashes, obscuring other drivers’
views of the road, making smog worse and contributing to global
warming, this might seem a viable option. But such drivers need
to be aware that they are not improving their own safety, and must
endure the aggravation of driving a vehicle that is harder to drive
and harder to park than a car.
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