While SUVs are among the most popular vehicles in America, they are also the riskiest when it comes to rollover accidents. Critics claim the auto industry has hidden that danger from consumers to protect profits. Because they sit higher above the road than cars, sport utility vehicles are far more prone to rollovers—the leading cause of death on America’s highways.
Fatality statistics show 10,694 people died in 1999 in vehicle rollovers. Sport utility vehicles, by far, had the highest rate, with 62 percent of all SUV deaths occurring in rollovers. That’s nearly three times the rate for cars, which is 22 percent.
In addition, government tests indicate even the most stable SUV is more likely to roll than the least stable car. However, information such as this has not been widely publicized nor shared with consumers. Congress—under pressure from the auto industry—had blocked plans to publish rollover ratings. SUVs are heavier and ride higher than regular cars. The high ride contributes to a propensity of SUVs to roll over in accidents. According to NHTSA, SUVs roll over in 37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to a 15 percent rollover rate for passenger cars. Rollover crashes accounted for 53 percent of all SUV occupant deaths in single vehicle crashes in 1996. Only 19 percent of occupant fatalities in passenger cars occurred in similar crashes.
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety says it’s purely a matter of economics. “Some SUVs have a $15,000 profit to the manufacturer in them. The average sport utility vehicle has about a $5,000 profit. The manufacturers don’t want to lose a single sale and they’re afraid if rollover ratings get out, they’ll lose sales.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was prepared to include rollover risk on its safety website in the Spring of 1999. However, automakers complained the ratings would not be accurate. Many SUVs, they argued, have been redesigned for stability and others have added side air bags. They also argued that many rollovers are caused simply by bad drivers.
“There are other factors related to the environment, the vehicle and the human factor, all of which contribute to the rollover potential,” says Josephine Cooper of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Congress, which takes millions in political contributions from the auto industry, bought the argument.
But that was before the Firestone tire tread separation and Ford Explorer rollover issue exploded with 103 deaths in rollover accidents. Now the pressure is coming from the public, and Congress now seems poised to let NHTSA release its rollover rates.
While rollovers do not occur as frequently as other types of crashes, when they do occur, the result is often serious injury or death. Rollovers accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities in the United States in 1999, more than side and rear crashes combined. They also resulted in tens of thousands of serious injuries.
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