It wasn't always true, however. When really digging into the numbers in years past, it turned out that SUVs had a disproportionately high rate of rollover when they did crash, and that the fatality rate when they did roll—due to poor roof protection on many models—was disproportionately high.
Until the early 1990s, SUVs were undeniably more dangerous than cars, looking purely at fatality numbers and considering their poor emergency handling on the highway, but then the two numbers flipped and SUVs have been making more significant gains in recent years.
According to 2009-calendar-year statistics, as recently presented by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), no matter which way you look at the numbers, they're now pointing to SUVs as a very safe choice—perhaps even a safer one.
Overall, just among drivers, 60 percent of passenger-car deaths in 2009 were in cars; 22 percent were in pickups; and 17 percent were in SUVs.
For all occupant fatalities in 2009, 52 percent involved a primary frontal impact, 27 percent a side impact, and just four percent a rear impact. Sixteen percent of all occupant deaths were attributed primarily to 'other' (representing rollovers, mostly).
Rollovers still a key concern for SUVs
But rollover remained the greatest concern for those considering an SUV. Still, nearly twice as many fatal accidents in SUVs (27 percent, versus 11 percent in cars) involved rollover in 2009. For single-vehicle crashes—such as running off the road avoiding an impact with a vehicle, or falling asleep—40 percent of SUV crashes, versus 21 percent in cars, involved rollover. Overall, 64 percent of total vehicle deaths for pickups and SUVs occur in those single-vehicle crashes, while for cars it's just 46 percent.
A surprising 19 percent of 2009 vehicle fatalities involved rollover but no other significant impact, and 55 percent of all single-vehicle crash deaths involved rollover; furthermore, rollover deaths are more likely to occur in SUVs.
Here's where it gets interesting: Adjusted for number of registered vehicles, and only considering those vehicles 1-3 years old, SUVs are now far safer than passenger cars overall. For 2009, there were 39 occupant deaths per million registered SUVs—versus 82 for cars, and 94 for pickups.
For SUVs, heavier isn't always better
Larger cars (and pickups) tend to have the lowest fatality rates, the IIHS points out (see the chart we clipped below), but that's not true for SUVs—perhaps because of impaired accident-avoidance ability for the largest trucks. Very large trucks weren't as safe as the largest, heaviest cars, but midsize and large SUVs proved safer than mid-size or large cars.
"When you get to a particular (especially heavy weight class), weight doesn't help you but instead inflicts greater damage to other vehicles—and occupants. "Size and weight make a difference up to a point," summed IIHS senior vice president Anne Fleming.
But it appears that automakers are finally solving the rollover issue. Looking only at rollovers, driver deaths in SUVs actually dipped below those in cars for the first time in 2008, and they continued that trend for 2009—now at just 7 rollover deaths per million registered vehicles 1-3 years old, versus 13 deaths in cars.