Are Sport Utes Really the Brutes of US Highways?
Sport-utility vehicles - the current object of Americans' love affair with the highway - have become the object of a growing controversy over vehicle safety.Skip to next paragraph
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So-called light trucks - pickups, sport "utes," and minivans - now account for 34 percent of the vehicles on US roads, and they pose new risks for the smaller cars that make up the bulk of traffic.
The trucks sit higher off the ground and have a stiffer construction to minimize damage for those rare excursions off-road.
So when they run into conventional cars, their frames don't flex as much and inflict more damage on the cars. In a frontal collisions, they also hit cars above the bumper and can ride up over a car's hood.
Compounding the problem: Trucks weigh more. When heavier vehicles hit lighter ones, they always inflict more damage than they sustain.
Two new research efforts are designed to study how to reduce light trucks' "hostility" in collisions with cars.
This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began a new kind of crash test to confirm statistical evidence: running sport-utility vehicles into the sides of Honda Accords to see how the cars and trucks can be modified to reduce the deadliest crashes.
And the Society of Automotive Engineers has proposed for the first time to cross-reference two existing databases to show which car models are related to what injuries in crashes. This information could allow automakers to combine the best designs of the safest cars.
Light trucks have always been more damaging than cars, says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). But their numbers were small until sport utes became trendy. Last year, almost 50 percent of new vehicle registrations in the US were classified as light trucks: pickups, SUVs, minivans.
And the trend is toward bigger - and heavier - sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) such as Ford's giant Expedition, back-ordered at many dealers.
Incompatible with today's cars?
All these trucks increase what the IIHS calls "crash incompatibility" on American roadways, and some insurers have raised premiums on SUVs. Analysts expect more to follow. Two of the nation's largest insurers, Farmers and Progressive, have raised liability premiums for SUVs. Farmers, whose increase affected only two states, has partially offset that with reduced rates for collision and personal injury coverage.
Experts peg much of the trend toward greater crash incompatibility to a collision of economics and demographics.
High gasoline prices in the 1970s drove Americans out of their gas-guzzling giants and into smaller cars. They burned less gas but crumpled more easily. Government fuel-economy standards forever sealed the demise big cars.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s - falling gas prices, more-efficient vehicle engines, and the burgeoning love affair with SUVs. And the trucks aren't subject to cars' tight fuel-economy regulations.
The core problem, say experts, is that while SUVs grow more numerous, and bigger, those smaller cars still crowd the roadways. And while yesterday's car buyers were primarily young yuppies looking for bargains, today's SUV buyers are yuppies well along the road to affluence.