SUVs are less safe than drivers think

Easy! Four-wheel drive SUVs often have serious stability problems, and they can stop no quicker than a two-wheel drive can, but some SUV drivers don't let any of that slow them down.

January 29, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella and June Arney | Lorraine Mirabella and June Arney,SUN STAFF

SUVs can be seen most anywhere these days, plowing through snowdrifts and gliding with authority over icy roads. But the high-riding, four-wheel drive vehicles haven't made it all that much easier to get around in the ice and snow.

Experts say powerful sport utility vehicles have serious stability problems and grip the road no better than cars do but tempt their drivers to take risks. And that makes them just as susceptible - or even more so - to disaster on slippery roads.

"These vehicles somehow give you the perception of safety, which you don't have in bad weather," said Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "The fact that it's easier to get your car going with four-wheel drive makes some people think it's easier to stop, too. When you see SUVs passing you in bad weather, you wonder is this what they're thinking."

A phenomenon of the 1990s, the sport utility vehicle began catching on with consumers early in the decade after Ford introduced its Explorer, luring car buyers with creature comforts plus a way to haul heavy loads, plow through the snow or venture off-road.

"It sold so well the rest of the industry realized there was a whole market of people who were looking for something with substance to it that made them feel safer," said Haig Stoddard, an analyst with WardAuto.com., an automotive information company. U.S. SUV sales have mushroomed from 929,066 in 1990 to 4.5 million last year, 27.3 percent of the light vehicle market, Stoddard said.

But serious safety issues have emerged, including a risk that the vehicles will roll over because of a higher center of gravity. That means SUVs are more likely than other passenger cars to tip if they slide sideways and hit something. Icy roads can increase the risk, experts said.

Though better design has reduced the risk of fatalities from rollovers in recent years as the SUV has evolved into more of a family car, fatality rates are still much higher - nearly double - than for other cars in single-vehicle rollover crashes.

In 2002, driver deaths from such crashes averaged 18 per million registered vehicles for cars, 47 per million vehicles for two-wheel-drive SUVs and 31 per million vehicles for four-wheel-drive SUVs, according to the Insurance Institute.

In inclement weather, some SUV drivers may be overly focused on their four-wheel-drive capability, which under normal conditions gives them more control because it spreads traction and power among all four wheels, said Bill Visnic, a senior technical editor for Ward's AutoWorld magazine in Detroit.

"People buy four-wheel-drive vehicles and they overdrive them because they think they have something magic," Visnic said. But "the first time it snows each year, all the people in the ditch or on the road upside down are the SUVs. You can count on it. If you have a really slippery surface, it doesn't matter how many wheels you are driving. What matters is how much grip your tire has, and you don't have any better grip on the ground than all those other people out there with two-wheel drive."

A driver would be better off in a two-wheel drive family sedan with winter or snow tires than in a four-wheel drive SUV with all-season tires, Visnic said.

Four-wheel drive vehicles offer no advantages when it comes to braking or turning sharp corners quickly, said Sue Akey, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Overconfident SUV drivers endanger not only themselves, but also others on the road, she said.

"For some reason, they do feel invincible, because they have this big vehicle for snow," she said. "They get overconfident, and they are a danger. If they are driving faster than you, just get out of the way, because they don't understand they cannot stop either."

"When you get the 4x4 operators, they tend to think because they have four-wheel drive they can go a little faster. It's simply not the case," said Sgt. T.O. Rouse, a Maryland State Police spokesman. "I think people tend to heed the ice warnings better. Ice tends to bring a little more fear than snow."

David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, remembers the horror that came over him more than 20 years ago as he drove a Range Rover down a neighborhood road during the first snow of the season in Birmingham, England, where he lived.

"I felt like I had oodles of grip, and everyone else was sliding all around," he said. "I'm cruising along, and I realized I was going twice as fast as I should have been, and the SUV weighed twice as much as a car, and I still had only four-wheel brakes." Going about 40 mph, Champion approached the stop sign, only to blow past it and across a four-lane road.

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