Sport Utility Vehicles - Bigger is Not Safer

"Safety and the environment that the auto industry SUVs represent the biggest menace to public has produced since the bad old days of the 1960s, before the advent of most safety and pollution control devices. They have already killed thousands of Americans who would still be alive today if automakers had sold cars instead. They will kill thousands more in the coming years. In the nation’s homes and hospitals, they have left a trail of people suffering unnecessarily from rollover-induced paralysis or pollution-induced respiratory difficulties. Perhaps the saddest part . . . is that it has been so unnecessary."

Keith Bradsher, "High and Mighty"

"I would not put an inexperienced driver in a high, center of gravity vehicle (such as an SUV or pickup truck), I would not ride in an SUV even if they were the last vehicle on earth."

Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, Administrator, NHTSA

Fueled by consumer demand, Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) have been produced in increasing numbers by car makers who recognize a sure thing when they see it. Not only are SUVs popular with consumers, they are very profitable for car makers. Unquestionably, the craze in SUVs represents the single most dramatic change in the automotive industry in the 1990's. In the late 1980's, the smaller foreign cars predominated the American market. The big three automakers were suffering financially. But, SUVs have saved the American automakers from financial ruin. SUVs have dramatically changed American’s perceptions of passenger vehicles.

Our business law attorneys at the Chicago firm of Bellas & Wachowski are available to help you with any questions you may have regarding SUV.

SUVs have increased the profits of every automaker. The Explorer may have single-handedly resuscitated Ford’s bottom line and all of Detroit. The reasons is simple – SUVs are basically built on existing truck platforms and by putting a fancy passenger compartment (with leather trim and a fancy sound system) on the truck frame, automakers can charge much more for the truck, thus making SUVs extremely profitable.

However, scientific evidence indicates that the size, height and design of SUVs increase the propensity to rollover. This is exacerbated by the weak roof system designs of many SUVs which causes the roof to crush into the passenger compartment in rollovers and inadequate passenger restraint systems fail to adequately protect passengers in the all too frequent roll over. This problem with the rollover propensity of SUVs was brought to the national spotlight because of the massive recall of Firestone tires that were original equipment on Explorers and some other light trucks. In the summer of 2000 Ford and Firestone were rocked when they were forced to recall tires following over 200 catastrophic deaths and numerous permanent injuries suffered as a result of the failure of Firestone tires on Explorers. Congress responded by passing the TREAD Act (The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Document Act of 2000), which requires NHTSA to develop a dynamic test of rollovers by vehicles for the purpose of consumer information, to develop a system of carrying on the tests, and to conduct rule making on how best to disseminate this information to the public. In essence, the TREAD act compels NHTSA to develop tests and rules for rating of various vehicles on the risk of rollovers.

As part of its obligations under the TREAD Act, in October, 2003, NHTSA released a new statistical study on vehicle weight and safety. One of their conclusions is that mid-sized SUVs and compact pickup trucks have the highest fatality rates (as do small 4-door pass cars) after adjusting the data for age, gender, and other variables. If rollovers were removed from the picture then the fatality rate for occupants of SUVs and pass cars of similar weight is about equal; however, mid-size SUVs were NINE TIMES as likely to be in a rollover (not to mention that they are twice as likely to cause a fatality in occupants of other vehicles). (See, NHTSA Technical Report, Vehicle Weight, Fatality Risk and Crash Compatibility of Model Year 1991-1999 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks, DOT HS 809 662, October, 2003.)

Rollover Problems with SUVs

The problem with SUV rollovers was denounced publically by the administrator of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") in January, 2003. In an appearance at the Automotive News World Congress, Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge gave the hard statistics which challenged the notion that driving SUVs offered more protection in an accident than an automobile. "There are about 10,000 fatalities in all rollover crashes each year. Rollover crashes represent 3 per cent of all collisions yet account for 32 percent of occupant fatalities. Moreover, fatalities in single vehicle rollovers increased 22.3 percent and they now account for 8,400 fatalities. The rollover occupant fatality rate per registered 100,000 SUVs is about three times higher than it is for passenger cars." Not content with merely quoting statistics, Runge said that the teenagers with new drivers’ licenses are especially at risk in SUVs because of their quirky handling characteristics and tendency to rollover."I would not put an inexperienced driver in a high, center of gravity vehicle (such as an SUV or pickup truck)," Runge told the audience of professionals and managers from automotive-oriented businesses. "I would not ride in an SUV even if they were the last vehicle on earth."

Statistically, automakers argue very effectively that SUVs have a safety record similar to passenger cars when all types of crashes are considered. But the risk of rollovers in SUVs is considerably higher because of their higher stance and narrow track width make them prone to rollover in sever steering maneuvers or when they are "tripped" on curbs or other obstacles.

How and why did this happen to the world’s best-selling SUV is a question for a broader discussion. Within Ford in 1986 there was a very desperate mood to find an inexpensive design of a new vehicle to help boost sales. Ford management would not approve a whole new vehicle . . . so they had to work with what they could. Ford truck executives came up with a plan to put a fancy passenger box on a truck platform and make it family friendly. So they came up with the Explorer, and instead of selling only the projected 150,000 units, they sold over 300,000 units the first full year . . . and the rest is history. Over 4 million have been sold between 1990 and 2002, with very little changes made to the vehicle. Like the Ford Bronco II, many seriously injured and deceased passengers of these vehicles have filed suits across the country challenging the design and testing of the Explorer. The final chapter on this story has yet to be written.

For more information about the rollover risks with SUVs, PBS ran a complete story on the history and development of the SUV phenomenon in the spring of 2002.

George Bellas has successfully prosecuted cases involving SUV rollovers and roof crush. These are very complex cases and require experienced trial attorneys who are familiar with the facts and engineering concepts involved in these serious accidents. George has also assisted a number of attorneys from across the country in the prosecution of these lawsuits. George has also lectured bar associations all across the country on litigation involving SUV rollovers.