SUVs not as safe as thought

Children are no safer riding in SUVs than in passenger cars, largely because the greater risk of rollovers in SUVs cancels out the safety advantages of their size and weight, according to a study.

Researchers said the findings dispel the bigger-equals-safer myth that has helped fuel the growing popularity of SUVs among families. SUV registrations climbed 250% in the United States between 1995 and 2002.

 "We’re not saying they’re worse or that they’re terrible vehicles. We’re challenging the conventional wisdom that everyone assumed they were better," said Dr. Dennis Durbin, a pediatric emergency physician who took part in the study, to be published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said he had not seen the study but cited government research released last summer that found SUVs have become less top-heavy since 2000 and have made dramatic improvements in rollover resistance.

"SUVs have an exceptional safety record and are safer than or as safe as cars in the vast majority of crashes," Shosteck said.

The researchers looked at accidents involving nearly 4,000 children under age 16 between 2000 and 2003, and found child injury rates of about 1.7% in both cars and SUVs. The study examined only 1998 or newer cars and SUVs with second-generation air bags.

On average, the SUVs weighed 1,300 pounds more than the cars studied. The study found that the extra weight of SUVs enhanced safety, reducing the risk of injury by more than a third.But that was offset by findings that SUVs were more than twice as likely as cars to roll over in crashes.

Children in rollovers were three times more likely to be seriously injured than those in non-rollover accidents, according to the study.

SUV safety probably will improve because of legislation approved by Congress this year that requires the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to develop standards for automakers to address SUV rollovers, Durbin said.

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