If you’re driving a car that’s hit by another vehicle, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says you’re 28 percent more likely to die if that vehicle is an SUV. That’s not exactly great news, but considering SUVs used to be 132 percent more deadly than cars, it’s a welcome improvement.
The study looked at collisions from 1989 to 2016 involving 1- to 4-year-old vehicles. That 132 percent figure comes from the first studied period, from 1989 to 1992. By the period ending in 2016, the risk from “vehicle incompatibility” had been significantly reduced in SUVs.
But not in pickup trucks. Those are still 159 percent more likely to kill you if they hit you, pretty much unchanged from 1989-1992 when they were 158 percent more likely to kill other drivers.
Weight is one of the biggest factors in this “incompatibility” as a heavier vehicle is always going to cause more damage during a collision. But another serious factor is ride height, as taller vehicles tend to bypass the strongest parts of cars’ crash structures.
There’s a lot of strong metal in car doors and floors. But if a truck bumper is level with a car’s window, it’s going to hit hardest on a section of the car that’s relatively undefended. So crossovers, with their typically lower ride height, are less dangerous to other motorists than full-size SUVs.
But that suggests that the “improvement” in SUVs might not actually be as significant as it looks. If your goal is reducing incompatibility, smaller crossover SUVs are better than the old-school large body-on-frame SUVs of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s unlikely, however, that crossover buyers are downsizing from true SUVs. Instead, more people are ditching cars for crossovers.
Since light trucks and crossovers now represent around 70 percent of the market, that means that—while SUVS are less likely to kill car drivers than they were 30 years ago—you’re way more likely to be in a crash with an SUV. Sure, it may be smaller and less deadly, but it’s still a lot worse than being hit by a car.
This helps put the pickup truck numbers in context, too. It’s not that a full-size truck had stayed dangerous while full-size SUVs have been redesigned to inflict less damage, it’s that trucks have gotten bigger while small SUVs have flooded the market. And as curb weights keep getting higher, it’s hard to deal with the amount of energy a moving truck can carry.
On a personal level, the safest thing is technically to buy an equally heavy, giant truck or SUV. But that’s the exact thinking that leads to the kind of curb weight arms race we’ve had over the past 20 years, where everyone switches to SUVs to make themselves safer while simultaneously making the roads more dangerous as a whole.