Safety disparity between SUVs, cars gets wider


DETROIT - The gap in safety between sport utility vehicles and passenger cars last year was the widest yet recorded, according to new traffic data.

People driving or riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars, the figures show.

SUVs continue to gain in popularity, despite safety concerns and the vehicles' lagging fuel economy at a time when gasoline prices are high. For the first seven months of 2004, SUVs accounted for 27.2 percent of all light-duty vehicle sales, up from 26 percent for the comparable period in 2003, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.

Overall, crash fatalities declined across the board in 2003 to the lowest levels in six years, the government figures show, with 42,643 people killed in traffic accidents in the United States. Much of the decline appeared to come from the fact that fewer people were driving drunk and more were buckling up.

But the United States has not made as much progress as some other developed nations because rates of seat belt use remain lower here and there is a growing number of SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to pose greater hazards than cars to their occupants and to others on the road.

The main reason for the safety gap in SUV and car fatalities, according to federal regulators, is that SUVs are more likely to roll over, a symptom of their higher ground clearance.

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