The Right Coast

February 18, 2004
Speaking of SUVs
By Tom Smith

A loyal reader has pointed out to me this utterly tendentious and misinformative article about SUVs in a recent New Yorker.

Besides its stupid attacks on women who wear hiking boots at the mall--maybe because they're comfortable and at under $100 relatively inexpensive and look cool-- Mr. Gladwell completely misrepresents the facts about SUV safety. And if Gladwell knew anything about women he would know they almost always have a good reason for wearing what they are wearing on their feet.

Here's the bad news. The safest vehicle on the road is the largest SUV you can get your hands on. Gladwell has two academics who have put together numbers showing SUVs are much more dangerous. I think I'll rely instead on the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which is funded by the industry that makes more money the fewer claims they have to pay.

Just a little quote for you:

Vehicle size and weight are important characteristics that influence crashworthiness. The laws of physics dictate that, all else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones. In relation to their numbers on the road, small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars.

Size and weight are closely related. Large vehicles typically are heavy, and small ones are light. But these two characteristics don't influence crashworthiness the same way. Vehicle size can protect you in both single- and two-vehicle collisions because larger vehicles usually have longer crush zones, which help prevent damage to the safety cage and lower the crash forces inside it.

All else being equal, you're safer traveling in a passenger vehicle that's larger and heavier than in one that's smaller and lighter. Vehicle weight protects you principally in two-vehicle crashes. In a head-on crash, for example, the heavier vehicle drives the lighter one backwards, which decreases forces inside the heavy vehicle and increases forces in the lighter one. All heavy vehicles, even poorly designed ones, offer this advantage in two-vehicle collisions but may not offer good protection in single-vehicle crashes.

Look at the bar graph and see how well large SUVs do compared to even the largest cars, let alone small cars. Then take a look at Gladwell's implication that you're safer in a small, well designed car like the Porsche Boxster. Utter rubbish. Here's what small cars look like after hit by big cars. Here's a brochure produced by the manufacturers on SUV safety, but it looks pretty well documented, and it has pretty graphs.

And yes, I concede pickups are dangerous to themselves and others. My dream of a gigantic crew cab with a camper on back for remote desert camping trips may have to go unrealized. Suburban with a trailier maybe. I'll keep you posted.