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The Myth of SUV Safety
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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USMC LAV-25

Even the USMC's LAV-25 is a rollover death trap on the highway.

SUV Rollovers Kill Over 10,000 American SUV Occupants a Year

I usually stay off the political soap box, but I saw something this week that compelled me to write this article. SUV rollovers kill a lot of their owners. The automakers do a great job of covering it up since they make so much more money selling you a truck instead of a car. Drive an SUV to haul trash to the dump, but not to get your kids safely to school.

On Wednesday, January 4th, 2006 my wife and I were coming home from dinner with another photographer couple. We saw two US Marines die when their LAV-25 rolled over on US I-5. Here's the article from the local paper, written by another person we know. That article doesn't mention that the LAV-25 flipped (or "overturned," as described by other media) when it hit the right guard rail. The LAV-25 (Light Armored Vehicle) was en route from Twentynine Palms to Camp Pendleton, California. If US Marines in an armored personnel carrier aren't safe on the freeway, forget about your SUV.

SUV rollovers kill over 10,000 SUV occupants every year purely from the rollovers. Our valiant Marines in the LAV-25, just like most rollover deaths, were ejected from their vehicle and no other vehicles were involved. This gives a lot of lawyers a lot of work and many share plenty of information like this site here. Of course there's a world of rollover info you can Google. Oddly I've read the 10,000+ deaths a year figure on the NHTSA website back in 2001, but no longer can find the real data. I suspect the lobbyists had them bury it. Today there are ratings, but no longer death counts. You can read an article that referred to the previously released death counts here. PBS made a movie about this here.

Military vehicles, the wet dream of suburban soccer moms, look tough if enemies are shooting at you. Unfortunately they rollover just like SUVs on pavement. Unlike cars, SUVs are top heavy and flip over during evasive maneuvers or hitting a guard rail. You might still be alive if you were in a Miata. The high clearance of SUVs is critical for off-road trails, but deadly on pavement. Sports car owners lower their suspensions for better safety and handling. Extreme high performance sports cars often have suspensions that automatically lower themselves at high speeds for better safety. Top-heavy SUVs handle like crap and cripple your abilities to avoid an accident in the first place. SUVs cause accidents that kill the cheery owners who were hoping to survive them.

It's sad that suburbanites think that they're safe locked up in their SUVs. Quite contrary to their "The heck with that slob in the Miata; I'm going to LIVE!" attitude, 10,000 more people would be alive today if they drove cars instead.

Less than 3,000 people were killed the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. More people die in SUV rollovers every four months, and the SUVs deaths are easily preventable by driving a real car.

You can research here that our military in loses as many brave men and women in Iraq each year (about 800) as our country loses soccer moms in SUV rollovers every month (also about 800). The sad part is that, unlike our brave military's sacrifices, the SUV deaths are entirely preventable by driving a car. These figures are just for the rollovers, not all accidents.

These are gruesome numbers. My intent is not to diminish the many sacrifices of our great American heroes, but to show that losses to SUV rollovers are very, very serious and overlooked.

Why do SUVs Rollover?

Simple: they ride high and have big tires.

Imagine having to tip over a vehicle yourself, or as part of an angry mob. To overturn a car you first have to lift almost all of its weight straight up until it's at almost a 90 degree angle. Only then will it fall the rest of the way. Think about it: if you and your angry mob just push it sideways nothing happens. It just slides. That's exactly what happens in car crashes. They just slide. Cars require more sideways force to flip them than their tires can generate. Car tires lose traction and slide before they ever get enough traction to flip. Just watch some cop videos: no matter how high the stupidity level of the guy being chased the cars never flip. They just skid. For your angry mob to flip a car you have to lift UP on one side. We flip them in the movies with ramps and air pistons on one side. Only a very clever stunt driver can flip a car just by weaving back and forth deliberately at the wrong frequency.

Now think about an SUV or high-rise show truck. It's already far off the ground. You don't have to lift it straight up; push hard enough up at its center of gravity (the doors) and you'll probably get it to go over. Worse, the bigger tires of the SUVs can generate even more sideways force before they skid, which means that your SUV is going over long before it slides.

As I recall Ford had a tire failure problem on the Explorer because they recommended low inflation pressures. The low inflation pressures caused the Firestones to overheat and burst. Ford recommended the low pressures because higher pressures allowed more g's of traction which increased the likelihood the Explorer would rollover. You can read all these stories here. Even back as of 2000 over 100 people died because of rollovers just related to tire failures in the Explorer. That's a load more than have ever died of flesh-eating bacteria or Avian Flu that makes the news. TV reporters don't take ads from diseases. I'm just reporting the news; I have nothing against Ford. Henry Ford used to stop and chat every day on his way in with my great-grandfather in Michigan. My great-grandfather was some big poo-bah at the plant and had come from running a pub in Ireland, so they were both pretty hospitable guys. I've also had cousins flip their SUV when they made too sharp a swerve on a freeway, too. It's the SUV design, not any particular maker.

As you can see one of the reasons automakers don't offer really huge tires and riser kits as original equipment is the extreme rollover hazard they make worse. The more traction you can get and the higher the truck the easier it flips over in a quick, unexpected swerve.

Think about it: trucks flip all the time, but how are you going to flip a Ferrari by sliding sideways too fast? It's basic physics and resolution of vector forces.

So Why Don't We Hear More About This?

Simple: auto makers make a lot of money selling SUVs compared to cars. TV makes a lot of money selling ads to car makers and newspapers make a lot of money selling ads to car dealers. Car makers spend a lot of money lobbying congress to keep the focus of safety inquiries away from SUVs. It's sad to poke around the government safety websites and see how they do their best to brush off the obvious statistics and physics.

PBS had a show on this here.

So What Can We Do?

If you love your SUV then enjoy it and ignore me. That's the freedom that makes America great. Car makers make SUVs because that's what people want to buy.

Personally I have a mid-sized BMW 540i sedan whose rear seats fold forward for carrying lumber. Big cars and trucks are a pain to drive and park.

If you're worried about safety and have to haul a lot of stuff then get a nice big car. If you want sporty ignore my wife's vanity issues and get a hot V8 station wagon like the 300 hp Mercedes E500, or 500 hp E55 AMG wagons. BMW made a 540iT wagon with a 300 HP V8 up through about 2003. These wagons haul more than many SUVs and are far more comfortable, safe, many times faster and still use less fuel. Wagons are popular in Europe while SUVs certainly aren't.

Think the USMC LAV-25 looks tough? It only has 275 hp. That's much less power than any of the station wagons I just mentioned! Not only that, the LAV-25 weighs over 24,000 pounds while the wagons weigh just 4,000 pounds, and even the exotic E55 wagon costs less than one-tenth of the LAV-25.

Of course you could also get a big car like the Ford Crown Victoria for less than $30,000. Most police departments use the Crown Victoria.

Summary

No one needs anyone to suggest what they ought to drive. That's why we're Americans.

Just know that the people who want to sell you your next SUV aren't exactly highlighting the safety risks. SUVs are clumsy and tip over.