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Unsafe at Any High Speed

SUVs are rolling over because they’re being driven too fast.

By 2.3.05

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WASHINGTON -- SUVs are once again in the crosshairs -- accused of being "unsafe" because they continue to be involved in a higher number of rollover-type accidents than ordinary passenger cars.

This issue can be looked at several ways -- but the determinative factor in rollover-type accidents is very often not the SUVs themselves. Rather, it's the way SUVs are sometimes driven. Specifically, they way they are often driven inappropriately by people who don't appreciate and respect the built-in limitations of these special-purpose vehicles.

Unlike passenger cars, SUVs are not designed for safe high-speed driving -- or for high load cornering and abrupt lane-changing maneuvers. These are not indications of "defective design," however -- but a consequence of the built-in features that give SUVs an advantage off-road in heavy snow and on rough, unpaved roads -- such as their high ground clearance and the Mud/Snow-rated (M/S) tires they are often equipped with. But these off-road advantages also put SUVs at a distinct disadvantage on-road relative to conventional passenger cars -- which have a lower ride height and center of gravity, as well as suspension systems and tires designed primarily for on-street driving.

But driven with respect for their unique capabilities and the limitations they impose, SUVs are no more dangerous than, for example, sports cars -- which are as vulnerable when driven in heavy snow (or on rocky unpaved backwoods trails) as an SUV is when driven at 85-mph, or pushed into a freeway off-ramp posted 35-mph at 20 over that.

YET WHILE MOST PEOPLE understand the built-in limitations of sports cars -- you rarely hear of a person attempting to take his Corvette on a hunting trip and subsequently complaining that "there ought to be a law" because it slid off the mountain or got hung up on a rock -- SUV owners regularly ignore the built-in design limitations of their SUVs and drive them no differently than they would a passenger car, or even a high-performance sports car.

Head out on any freeway and you'll see them all around you -- SUVs buzzing along at 70, 80 mph (or faster), their drivers weaving in and out of traffic, one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a cell phone, following too closely, etc. And when the over-taxed SUV gets pushed beyond its lower-than-passenger car limits and becomes unstable, it -- not the driver -- gets the blame.

Fundamentally, however, the problem lies with the way SUVs are driven -- not with the SUVs themselves. This is probably a consequence not of willful recklessness on the part of SUV owners but by dint of the fact that SUVs have become mass-market vehicles that have been sold to the general public as no different in their driving dynamics and limitations/abilities than passenger cars. Their on-street limitations are deliberately played down -- or ignored entirely -- while their "fun to drive" qualities are played up. Modern SUVs are also deceptively easy to drive -- and to drive excessively fast. As a result, people are driving them well beyond the "safety zone" of their built-in design limitations -- getting in way over their heads -- and wondering why their SUVs have an ugly habit of turning turtle on them.

THIS MESS IS ONLY GOING to get worse as the number of SUVs on the road increases. SUVs have grown from a small niche -- perhaps 5 percent of all new vehicle sales -- to more than 50 percent of all new vehicle sales today. As their popularity grows, so also will the number of needless accidents involving SUVs.

Fixing this will require two things -- neither of which is a new law or mandated piece of costly add-on "safety" equipment to idiot-proof SUVs.

First, the automakers must take steps to educate the buying public about the inherent limitations of an off-road-capable vehicle on paved roads. It must be made clear that a 5,000-lb. truck-derived 4x4 SUV is not something to be doing 70, 80 or 90-mph in (as was the case with a great many of the Ford Explorers involved in the Firestone tire/rollover debacle of a few years back). Such a vehicle is more subject to crosswinds due to its boxy profile -- and the air pressure that builds up underneath the vehicle due to its higher ground clearance further decreases stability the faster the vehicle is pushed. Its Mud and Snow-rated (M/S) tires are not designed for continuous high-speed travel; heat build-up can cause dramatic failure at high speed -- leading to loss of control and a potential rollover.

Two, SUV owners need to respect the built-in limitations of their special-purpose vehicles and learn to drive them within their "safety zone" -- no more cruising along in heavy traffic at 75-mph, no more taking corners at even 5-mph over the posted maximum. No more riding people's bumpers -- and then having to swerve violently to avoid a rear-ender when the car ahead brakes suddenly. And no more blaming the automakers -- or SUVs -- for the poor choices SUV owners make behind the wheel.

Let's use some common sense and drive our vehicles within reason and with respect for what they can -- and cannot -- do.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.