Child Safety and the SUV

A study that hit the news recently delivered a counterintuitive message. When the general news media reported on the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, it gave the impression that sport utility vehicles were no safer for child-passengers than cars. But according to analysis of a much broader study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children are at least twice as safe in SUVs than in passenger cars when properly restrained. Of course, NHTSA is the federal government agency responsible for automobile and highway safety.

"Two times safer means a lot safer, and this is vital information that parents, grandparents and caregivers need to know," said Barry McCahill, president of Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA). "Unfortunately, it was widely reported that SUVs provide no more crash protection for children than cars -- and that's just not true."

The comprehensive NHTSA study, "Child Passenger Fatalities and Injuries Based on Restraint Use, Vehicle Type, Seat Position, and Number of Vehicles in the Crash," considered all fatal crashes, as well as injury crashes. In looking at crashes involving both restrained and unrestrained children researchers found that for children in safety seats or safety belts injuries were 21 percent greater for cars than SUVs, and SUVs provide 2 to 2.4 times better protection from fatal injury than cars.

"The NHTSA study documents still again that what you drive has much to do with crash outcome," McCahill said. "All else being equal in safety equipment, occupants of a larger vehicle fare better in a crash, which is why an SUV is among the smartest safety choices. They may cost more to operate, but the added expense could be viewed as another form of life insurance."
Why the discrepancy between the findings of the two studies? SUVOA believes the findings reported in Pediatrics were the result of a much smaller scale study based on a sample of less than one tenth of one percent of all crash-injured children, and it was limited to only 16 states. Perhaps the biggest reason for the discrepancy is that the study made no distinction between the types of injury reported -- small cuts and brain injuries were considered equal -- and the injuries were self-reported by the driver of the vehicle involved.

"The NHTSA study is far more authoritative because it is national in scope and much more extensive. Moreover, it comes from the agency that is the premier source for auto crash data collection and analysis," McCahill added. "Parents should look to the NHTSA findings for the bottom line in which vehicles are safest for their children."

Vehicle safety is evolving constantly. McCahill said automakers should continue to make SUVs and all vehicles even safer by equipping them with electronic stability control (ESC) to help prevent rollover crashes. Because SUVs have a greater tendency to roll over than cars, this, and other design and engineering technologies will further widen the rollover safety gap between SUVs and cars.

"But most highway tragedies are not the vehicle's fault. Adults should make sure children ride in a safety seat or safety belt for older children, and buckle up themselves," McCahill said. "That may sound like staid advice, but it's still your best chance of survival in a crash." 

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley is no stranger to life-and-death situations. He reports on the auto industry and the human condition from Villeperce, France.