How Safe Are Sport-Utility Vehicles?

It's a question on the minds of SUV drivers all over the country: Do sport-utility vehicles really roll over more easily than other types of vehicles?

The troubling fact is that they do. SUVs roll over in about 30 percent of the crashes analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, compared to 8 percent of crashes involving passenger cars.

"It's a function of gravity," says Bill Visnic, senior technical editor for Ward's Auto World magazine in Southfield, Mich. "Many of these vehicles are higher, but they don't have a wider base."

While many SUVs are bigger and heavier than cars -- meaning you'd be well protected in a crash -- automotive experts warn that SUV drivers shouldn't get overconfident, especially in winter conditions.

"Four-wheel drive will cause more problems than it will solve if you don't use your head," says Jim Solomon, master trainer for the National Safety Council defensive-driving courses. "Drive as if you had two-wheel drive, then when you need four-wheel, it will be there for you," he says. "Remember, four-wheel drive won't help you stop any faster."

Drivers considering an SUV should see how it handles on a test drive, says Visnic. Do some sharp turns. "There's a huge difference from model to model," he says. "Look for one with as low a center of gravity as possible."

Nationally, SUVs have a rollover rate of 98 fatalities per million registered vehicles, compared to 44 fatalities per million for other light vehicle types, according to NHTSA. But consider this: 1,088 of the 1,482 SUV-rollover deaths in 1997 involved occupants who didn't use their safety belts.

Follow these tips to protect yourself from a rollover.

"Buying an SUV involves a tradeoff," says Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator for NHTSA. "While these vehicles may do well in certain types of crashes, they are more likely to roll over."

Regardless of what type of vehicle you’re driving follow these 10 tips for safe winter driving.

  1. Respect the winter weather. "Plan extra time for a trip in the winter," says AAA spokesman Mitch Fuqua. "A trip that might take 30 minutes in May might take you 45 minutes or an hour in the winter."

  2. Wear your safety belts. "You have to be protected, no matter what season it is," says Carole Guzzetta of the National Safety Council's Safety Belt Coalition. Make it a rule: Everyone must be buckled up before the vehicle moves.

  3. Don't drink and drive. At least 30 percent of those winter-driving crashes that lead to visits to Hennepin County Medical Center involve alcohol, Heegaard says. Remember that you have less reaction time in hazardous conditions.
  4. Winterize your vehicle's safety kit. The kit should include some special additions, such as a blanket, a small shovel to dig out snow, sand to help get traction if needed, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, jumper cables, ice scraper/brush and lock deicer.
  5. Conduct a pre-trip inspection. Check the antifreeze. Make sure you have proper tires to handle the weather. Be sure you have enough gas for each trip. Wipers must be in good shape to handle snow and ice. Remember to first unstick them from the frozen glass.
  6. Be ready for changing conditions. Make sure you have good all-season tires that can handle different types of weather. Check with your auto mechanic or a professional at a tire store to discuss your options. In high snow and ice areas, you may need more than all-season tires.
  7. Don't get SUV overconfidence. "The bigger the vehicle, the tougher it is to stop," says Liz Neblett of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While a sport-utility vehicle might get through some tough conditions more easily, it won't stop more quickly, and it may roll over if you make a turn too fast.
  8. Know how to react to trouble. If you have antilock brakes, don't pump them. Press them down as hard as you can. If you go into a skid, turn the steering wheel in the direction you want the front of the car to go; that will keep the vehicle from skidding out of control. Then prepare to counter steer 2 or 3 times.
  9. Leave some space. Follow the 3-second rule. After the vehicle in front of you passes a stationary object, you should be able to count for 3 seconds before your vehicle passes the same object. Add 1 more second for each driving condition that deteriorates.
  10. Defuse road rage. One-fourth of drivers in a recent AAA survey admitted they have expressed anger at other drivers. To avoid becoming a road-rage statistic, leave more room between yourself and other drivers. Stay out of the left lane if you're going slowly. And don't play games on the road.