rollover: the hidden history of the suv
an suv on the showroom floor and a gas mileage sticker home
unsafe on any tire?
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Here are some statistics and facts that you might want to consider, as well as links to some useful consumer information available on the Web.

"Everybody is focusing on the tragic deaths involving Firestone tires. But we are ignoring the elephant in the tent, which is the much broader problem created by sport utility vehicles, and not just the Explorer."
-- Keith Bradsher, former Detroit bureau chief
for The New York Times, in a FRONTLINE interview.

A Few Facts About SUVs and Safety

  • There will be an estimated 70,000 SUV rollovers in 2002, in which it's estimated 2000 people will die.

  • In the 10-year period during which Ford-Firestone related rollovers caused some 300 deaths, more than 12,000 people -- 40 times as many -- died in SUV rollover crashes unrelated to tire failure.

  • A Ford Explorer is 16 times as likely as the typical family car to kill occupants of another vehicle in a crash.

  • 1 out of 4 new vehicles sold in the U.S. is an SUV, making it the most popular type of vehicle in America. The Ford Explorer is the most popular SUV in the world.

Some Questions and Answers About SUVs and Rollovers

  • How serious is the motor vehicle rollover problem in the U.S. today?

    Single-vehicle rollovers (for all vehicles, not just SUVs) cause more fatalities than any other kind of motor-vehicle accident -- one-quarter of all deaths yearly. In 1999, 63 percent of all SUV deaths were in rollovers.

  • Do SUVs have higher rollover rates than other types of vehicles?

    Yes. In 2000, SUVs had the highest rollover involvement rate of any vehicle type in fatal crashes -- 36 percent, as compared with 24 percent for pickups, 19 percent for vans and 15 percent for traffic cars. SUVs also had the highest rollover rate for passenger vehicles in injury crashes -- 12 percent, as compared to 7 percent for pickups, 4 percent for vans and 3 percent for passenger cars.

  • What can be done to improve the stability of SUVs and make them less likely to roll over?

    Engineers and safety experts have long agreed that the best way for manufacturers to make SUVs more stable (less likely to roll over) is to lower the center of gravity and widen the wheel track. However, such fundamental changes to an SUV's design are costly, and automakers have often chosen less expensive (and less effective) design modifications.

  • What can the driver do to reduce rollover risk?

    Here are five things NHTSA says a driver can do to reduce the risk of rollover:

    • Avoid conditions that could lead to loss of vehicle control. These conditions include driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; driving when excessively drowsy; and speeding.
    • Be careful on rural roads.
    • Avoid extreme panic-like steering. NHTSA advises, "If your vehicle should go off the roadway, gradually reduce the vehicle speed and then ease the vehicle back on to the roadway when it is safe to do so."
    • Maintain tires properly and replace them when necessary.
    • Load vehicles properly. When loaded down with additional weight -- such as passengers, luggage, and equipment -- SUVs become less stable. Compared to most sedans and station wagons, SUVs have a higher center of gravity. Therefore the extra weight, which typically rides above an SUV's center of gravity, makes the vehicle tip more easily.
  • Are SUVs safer or more dangerous than other vehicles in non-rollover crashes, such as front- and side-impact collisions?

    It depends. SUVs offer better protection to their own occupants in multi-vehicle crashes, such as front- and side-impact collisions. However, SUVs are more likely to injure or kill the occupants of other vehicles in a crash. The increasing size of SUVs, and thus their increasing incompatibility with smaller passenger cars, is a growing problem and is likely to result in increasing fatalities.

  • Is the Ford Explorer more rollover-prone than the dozens of other SUVs?

    No. According to federal data and safety ratings, the four-door Explorer's rollover record is pretty typical of midsize SUVs.

  • Has Ford changed the design of the Explorer?

    Yes. The 2002 four-door Explorer model is lower and its wheelbase has been widened by two inches. Former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser tells FRONTLINE that the changes were not made for safety reasons.

  • Has the Ford-Firestone scandal had an impact on sales of the Ford Explorer?

    The Explorer lost market share but remains the best-selling SUV in the world.

SUVs and the environment

  • What is CAFE?

    As part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requires automakers to comply with gas mileage or fuel economy standards set by the Department of Energy. The current CAFE standard for cars is 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg), and has not changed since 1986. The current CAFE standard for light trucks -- including SUVs -- is 20.7 mpg. This standard has been in place since 1996.

  • But don't some SUVs get significantly less than 20.7 miles per gallon?

    Yes. CAFE is an average standard applied on a fleet-wide basis for each manufacturer. So, for example, the fuel economy ratings for a manufacturer's entire line of light trucks must average at least 20.7 mpg for the manufacturer to comply with the standard.

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most fuel efficient SUV is the Toyota RAV4, which gets 25 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. There is a three-way tie for least efficient SUV: the Land Rover Range Rover, Cadillac Escalade, and GMC K1500 Yukon Denali all get 12 mpg in the city and 15 mpg on the highway.

  • Which SUVs are the least and most polluting in their class?

    According to the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide, for the 2002 model year, the cleanest SUVs are: the Chevrolet Tracker, Ford Escape, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Vitara, Suzuki Grand Vitara, and Toyota RAV4.

    The SUVs named most polluting by the EPA are: the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet C1500 Avalanche, Chevrolet C1500 Suburban, Chevrolet C1500 Tahoe, Chevrolet K1500 Avalanche, Chevrolet K1500 Suburban, Chevrolet K1500 Tahoe, GMC C1500 Yukon, GMC K1500 Yukon, GMC K1500 Yukon Denali, Toyota Land Cruiser, and Toyota Sequoia.

  • Are any of the auto companies doing anything to address SUVs' environmental impact?

    In what was seen as a startling admission, Ford published a report that was distributed to shareholders in which the company acknowledged that SUVs are environmentally unfriendly and can be a danger to drivers in smaller vehicles. Ford said that it made these admissions in an attempt to be more transparent, and that it was taking some steps to help address the problems. However, Ford said that it would continue to make SUVs in order to meet the strong market demand.

General Motor Vehicle Safety

  • What is the U.S. traffic fatality rate?

    In 2000, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel fell to an historic low of 1.5. In 1990, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.1.

  • How many people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2000?

    In the estimated 6,394,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes during 2000, 41,821 people were killed -- an increase of 0.2 percent over 1999. 3,189,000 people were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes and 4,286,000 crashes involved property damage alone. An average of 115 people died each day in motor vehicle crashes in 2000 -- one every 13 minutes.

  • How many lives were saved in 2000 by the use of seat belts?

    NHTSA estimates that 11,889 lives were saved in the year 2000 by the use of safety belts. An estimated 316 children under the age of 5 were saved as a result of the use of child restraints.

Information for Consumers

· NHTSA: Rollover Resistance Ratings Information
This page on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website includes a description and explanation of the rollover resistance ratings introduced as part of the agency's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) in January 2001. It also has answers to frequently asked questions about the rollover ratings and a link to the New Car Assessment Program (see below).

· NHTSA: New Car Assessment Program
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides information on rollovers and frontal and side crash-test results for cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs. The ratings indicate the chances a person wearing a seatbelt will suffer a serious injury in the event of a crash in a particular vehicle. (NHTSA defines a serious injury as one requiring immediate hospitalization and which may be life threatening.)

· Consumer Reports: Autos
If you're shopping for a new or used car, the Consumer Reports website is a good place to start. It offers advice on how to narrow choices, research safety and insurance information, and learn the right questions to ask while shopping. In addition, the site offers Consumer Reports' picks for the best new and used cars.

· Auto Defects: Test Your Car
The website for the Center for Auto Safety, an organization founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader, offers fact sheets on defects and major recalls for many automobiles. If you do not see your car make and model listed, look at the "What You Can Do" section in the left-hand column. If you click on a specific automaker, it will tell you how to find out more information on other complaints and recalls.

· Fuel Economy
This site, sponsored by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, contains gas mileage and greenhouse gas emissions data, air pollution ratings, and safety information for new and used cars and trucks, along with tips on how to improve gas mileage and where to find the cheapest gas prices in your area.

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