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SUVs, pickups have fatal impact in car accidents

In serious collisions involving cars and sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks, the heavier, higher-riding vehicles win out, according to a new study that also recommends making the vehicles more crash compatible to reduce fatalities.

The most detailed study to date on such crashes, released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, suggests that the high death tolls associated with such vehicles warrant design improvements for the future."The very high death rates for occupants of other vehicles colliding with pickups or utility vehicles suggest that making future model pickups and utility vehicles more crash compatible, especially in crashes with cars, should be a priority," said Brian O'Neill, the institute's president.

For example, O'Neill said he wanted to see sport utility manufacturers design lower-riding frame rails like those on the new Mercedes M-class sport utility.

According to the study, those in a car are four times as likely to die as the people inside the light truck. The numbers are even grimmer for crashes in which the light truck hits the side of a car.

"While you gain some benefit from being in a (heavier) pickup truck or utility vehicle in two-vehicle crashes, the consequences for the occupants of other vehicles are very dramatic and very bad," O'Neill said. "That's a problem."

When pickups or SUVs strike cars on the side, 27 car passengers die for each death in a pickup or sport utility, says the study based on crash data reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Weight is a major factor in the crashes. In comparison, when a car hits another auto in the side, there are six deaths in the car being hit for every one in the striking car. The ratio increases to 20-to-1 if the striking car is very large.

But the height of a vehicle is also an issue. Sport utilities and pickups ride high enough off the ground that the frame strikes the side of the car not on its frame but on the middle of the door, auto safety experts say.

Most light-truck frames are also stiffer, meaning they absorb less energy in a crash and transfer more of it to the other vehicle.

Side-impact crashes account for roughly 30 percent of all deaths in car and truck crashes, exceeded only by deaths in crashes in head-on and other frontal collisions - which account for about 50 percent of deaths.

For all crashes between cars and pickups or sport utilities, four people die in cars for every death in the light truck, the study said.

A similar side-impact study, with similar results, is under review at NHTSA, the government safety agency, and has not yet been released. The government has also done studies of vehicle weight and deaths in crashes, but not in as much detail.

Automakers argue they are giving consumers the vehicles they want and cannot overturn the laws of physics in size and weight mismatches. "It's a matter of weight and mass. . . . There's nothing we can do," said Ross Roberts of Ford Motor Co.

In most weight classes, ranging from 2,500-pound vehicles to 5,000-pound-plus vehicles, pickup trucks have the most combined deaths in two-vehicle accidents - both inside the truck and in the other vehicle.

But sport utilities are getting a larger share of the attention in the safety community - and the government - because of their rapid sales growth in recent years and their primary use in urban set-tings.

SUVs were designed for high clearance, off-road use, but only some 15 percent of owners use them for that purpose, auto surveys indicate.

"With pickups, people do have some cargo-carrying needs. One questions the needs for most people who are buying Expeditions or Suburbans," O'Neill said.

"These sport utilities have been the station wagon of the 1990s. That's of particular concern to us," said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of NHTSA.