Keep Our Families SafeTeens and SUVs: A Dangerous Mix

Long a source of concern in the auto industry, the mix of teenagers and SUVs may be more dangerous than you think.
 
In thinking about this issue, there are two important facts to keep in mind. First, it is no surprise that teens tend to have more automobile accidents than more experienced drivers. Second, SUVs are three times more likely to rollover in single vehicle crashes than regular cars.
 
While many parents think that driving an SUV will protect their children in a crash, a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute showed that SUVs are not the safest automobile choice that parents can make for their kids. 
 
The study examined SUV crashes and fatalities between 1999 and 2001 and determined that in about 37% of single-vehicle crashes involving an SUV and a driver under the age of 25, a rollover occurred. The rollover rate for all drivers in single-vehicle crashes is about 30%.
 
Given how many teens drive or hope to drive SUVs, this is a potentially deadly combination. As Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the research arm of auto insurers, says, “They still think they’re really cool; my daughter always wanted one. They don’t want the kind of sensible low-power large car, but that’s exactly the kind of car they need to be in.”
           
One of the more common and fatal types of teen crashes is one in which the vehicle runs off of the road. All too often, crashes such as these lead to rollovers because the vehicle hits some kind of object or uneven terrain that can send the SUV into a roll. 
 
Most parents have yet to make the connection between the greater rollover risk with SUVs and the statistics on the types of accidents teens are having.
 
In 2003, teens accounted for 6.4% of the drivers on the road, but made up 14% of the drivers in fatal accidents. While the number of teen fatalities and injuries was down in 2003 as compared to 2002, the statistics are still grizzly. About 3,660 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 were killed in 2003. Of those, 53% weren’t wearing seat belts and 31% had been drinking.
 
Tragically, much of the emphasis in the efforts to protect teens on the road has focused on what is called “graduated licensing,” or limiting new drivers to low risk situations. Many states limit the hours that teens can be on the road and/or the number of passengers they can carry.
 
What makes this all the worse is that at least for some, the dangers of teens and SUVs is no surprise. At least two years ago, Jeffrey Runge, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was warning against teens driving rollover-prone vehicles. In fact, in a speech in Detroit that was infamous for its bluntness, he said that he wouldn’t let his teen drive a rollover-prone vehicle “if it was the last one on earth.”
 
One of the researchers on the Michigan study, John Woodrooffe, also noted the study found that nearly half of SUV rollovers begin with a loss of control of the vehicle through a sideways slip. As Woodrooffe noted, “That kind of scenario suggests that an inexperienced driver would be at a loss” to correct the problem.