Are SUVs Safer than Cars?

Doug Mann

We all want to be safe on the road. From taking care around trucks to avoiding accident-prone spots on Ohio roads, we do what we can to minimize our risk of getting in an accident. We also have to consider safety when we’re choosing a vehicle. If you do get in a crash, you want your car to be designed to keep you as safe as possible.

Have a question for a lawyer?
Get a Free Case Evaulation
Table of Contents
  1. SUV vs. Sedan Safety
  2. Crash-Testing Evolution
  3. Is bigger better?
  4. Which car is right for you?
  5. Safe Driving is the Best Protection

So, what types of vehicles are safest?

SUV vs. Sedan Safety

One important factor that affects the safety of a vehicle is its size. With more metal between them and the road, SUV drivers enjoy a higher rate of safety than those in sedans and smaller cars, which may be more easily damaged. With otherwise equal safety features (such as side airbags and anti-lock breaks), SUVs typically have the edge over smaller cars when it comes to safety.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that a total of 22,543 passenger vehicle occupants died in 2015, 26% fewer than in 1975. This study also showed a dramatic change in the types of vehicles involved in crashes since 1975. Regular car fatalities were down almost 50%, while SUV and pickup truck fatalities have increased significantly, with the likelihood of SUV accidents 10 times as high.

While this seems like a drastic increase in SUV and pickup truck accidents compared to other automobiles, the increase in SUV-related accident deaths can be attributed to the rapidly growing popularity of SUVs over that period of time. The study also took into account that most of the fatalities in larger vehicles were the result of single-car accidents and their size made deaths less likely in crashes involving multiple-vehicle crashes. In that study, 58% of passenger-vehicle occupant deaths (2015) involved regular cars, 24% were SUVs, and coming in last were pickup accidents at 17%.

Ultimately the study found that in the years since 1979, rates in general involving occupant deaths per million registered cars have decreased across the board. In short, cars are getting safer overall, magnifying the safety differences between vehicles of different sizes.

Crash-Testing Evolution

Much of the improvement of safety standards on cars over the past few decades is owed to crash testing. In the United States, more than 2.35 million people are injured each year in vehicle accidents. Some of those accidents occur because of negligence or bad drivers, or tough weather conditions. Some occur because of recalled equipment. But all of the cars involved in accidents have some pre-determined risk before getting behind the wheel based on crash test ratings.

Both IIHS and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conduct crash tests to determine potential injuries to drivers. Vehicles’ safety features are then assessed by each agency — NHTSA tests for rollover, side, and front crashes, while IIHS tests for side impacts and frontal-offset impacts. While both tests are different, looking at the data from each and how that car you’ve been eyeing at the dealership stacks up could affect your purchasing decision.

An expert tip from Doug Mann

One of the most popular models of crash test dummies NHTSA developed in the 1970s is still being used today. However, as Americans’ lifestyles have changed since then — we’re living longer, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, larger (Ohioans get into a surprising amount of accidents in front of fast-food restaurants) — even newer crash test models are in the works to help better replicate crash situations and potential injuries for both older drivers as well as heavier drivers.

Is bigger better?

Much like the different sizes of humans, including small children, can be a factor in the types of injuries received in a car crash, so can the size of a vehicle. A study by IIHS published in the New York Times found that while the occasional smaller car did well in head-on collision tests; very few of them “received high marks in both side- and rear-crash tests.” Small cars tend to crumple when impacted violently and airbags can only do so much in the face of rapidly bending metal.

Adrian Lund, the head of the institute who commissioned the study, had this to say: “A good-scoring small and lightweight car is not nearly as good as a good-scoring midsize car — that’s just the law of physics.” With less space between the driver and the physical body of the car, the chances of a grievous injury while driving a small vehicle greatly increase. When up against something like an SUV or a pickup in a direct collision, the car’s smaller size can bring the driver closer to the dangerous bumpers and large wheels of their roadside contemporaries, also increasing the risk of death.

Also, the characteristics of larger cars can affect the amount of collateral damage that occurs in a crash. For example, the larger cars are particularly safe for passengers sitting in the back seat. In the Insurance Institute study, only 8% of all vehicle fatalities involved passengers in the back seats. So, large cars are safer for all passengers, but especially so for those in the back seat.

This information seems to matter very little to potential car buyers, however. A manager at an auto dealership interviewed by the Times stated parents were usually looking for the cheapest option available to them when buying their children a first automobile and see the costly addition of side airbags as a frivolous expense. He recommends that with smaller cars, it is important to try and invest in as many safety features as possible. While you can save money in the short term with lighter automobile’s superior gas mileage on average, the automotive and medical costs of an accident can erase all of those saving in an instant — a little increase in gas mileage and up-front costs isn’t worth a life.

Which car is right for you?

A recent study by the University of Buffalo that was published in Consumer Reports reported that “In car vs. SUV head-on crashes… the odds of death were 7.6 times higher for the car driver than the SUV driver.” They thoroughly examined the federal government’s auto death database, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and found that what type of car you buy is just as important as what safety features you invest in. These findings point to SUVs being a safer bet, as their sheer size affords the driver a certain amount of protection. However, SUVs have their own safety concerns, as SUVs often have a high center of gravity, causing deaths when rollovers occur.

When it comes down to it, it seems that a larger car is often safer in accidents. Of course, there are other factors that should be accounted for. For instance, a smaller car with up-to-date safety equipment such as anti-lock brakes and high scores on Consumer Reports tests like accident avoidance and wet/dry braking can be safer than an older SUV with less updated safety equipment. In addition, smaller cars may make more sense in a large city where traffic and parking are often an issue. You’ll need to weigh your own needs and options.

In all, evidence suggests that bigger cars are simply safer. It’s intuitive — the more car between you and the road and other vehicles, the better. No matter what size of car you choose, you should seriously consider side airbags and other optional safety features, all of which can significantly reduce your risk in a crash.

Safe Driving is the Best Protection

No car, no matter the safety features involved, is immune from operator error. Whatever type of car you drive, you should always wear a seat belt, maintain a safe rate of speed, and skip the alcohol before operating a vehicle. Focus only on driving — don’t look at your phone or fiddle with a GPS. Exercising common sense can make the difference between surviving an accident and avoiding the accident entirely.

Have you been in an automobile accident? We can help. Our experienced car accident attorneys at DGM&S can help you claim compensation for your injuries and property damage. Contact us today for a free case evaluation and consultation to learn more about your options.

Get a Free Case Evaluation

Have a legal question? Email our team. We respond to all messages within 24 hours.