Why SUVs Are Less Safe Than Minivans

It’s long been known that SUVs are hardly the safest vehicles on the road, both for their occupants and the occupants of other cars (as well as pedestrians and cyclists).

A recent study published in Injury Prevention, “Non-fatal and fatal crash injury risk for children in minivans compared with children in sport utility vehicles” M.J. Kallan, K. B. Arbogast, M.R. Elliott, and D.R. Durbin, looks specifically at the safety of child occupants of those vehicles, and finds minivans come out on top.

In the New York Times “Wheels” blog, one of the study’s authors, Dennis Durbin, explains the findings:

When it came to crashes that caused injuries but not deaths, Dr. Dennis Durbin of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention said children in minivans were 35 percent less likely to be hurt than children in S.U.V.’s.

Dr. Durbin, who drives a minivan, isn’t sure what is behind that, but he had a couple of theories. One was that the structure of the minivan may absorb energy better than a body-on-frame S.U.V. The other was that there seemed to be more room inside minivans, he said. “There is a lot of space for them to move around in without hitting each other or some component of the vehicle.”

Looking at fatal crashes, there was a 24 percent greater chance of a child being killed in an S.U.V. than a minivan, the researchers found. Dr. Durbin said the reason for that was clear: S.U.V.’s had more rollover crashes. The study found that 66 percent of the S.U.V. fatalities involved a rollover, compared with 37 percent for minivans.

Rollovers, to be sure, account for a great deal of the difference. I might also argue that SUVs are driven differently due to the higher seat position of the driver (they feel as if they are moving more slowly than a driver in a lower vehicle).

But while the study wasn’t able look at driver behavior factors, this should not be overlooked. Different sorts of people are drawn to different vehicles, and they drive them differently. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Leonard Evans’ book Traffic Safety and the Driver. As the chart reproduced below shows (the car models are somewhat antiquated at this point), the crash involvement rate for vehicles was higher in the sedan version of the car than in the station wagon version, and it is generally higher in the two-door models than the four-door models. It is not, as Evans argues, that safety is a matter of simply adding a few more doors, or getting rid of the trunk. It is that “vehicle factors” sometimes matter less than human factors. Compounding the problem of course is that there has been a move away from minivans, never depicted as anything but safe and staid, into SUVs, whose marketing messages and vehicle characteristics are more often oriented toward aggressive driving (in fact there is anecdotal chatter about people moving into SUVs because they didn’t want to be branded with the “soccer mom” pejorative, as if SUVs themselves didn’t now have that legacy).

This entry was posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2009 at 1:18 pm and is filed under Cars, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
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Yale University
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University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

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Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
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Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

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Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

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Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

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Australasian Road Safety Conference
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Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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Rutgers University
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
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Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
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California Association of Cities
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American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
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April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
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January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
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New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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TransComm 2013
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Grand Rapids MI



April 2009

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