The safety or not of SUVs

Seven of the top 10 vehicles we bought in November 2018 were SUVs and commercial utes. In fact, you only have to look around the streets to see we prefer them. Given business and government buy them too, you might think SUVs are safer than other types. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

Safety ratings

The Australasian New Car Assessment (ANCAP) and Monash University Accident Research Centre Used Car Safety Rating (UCSR) programs monitor how safe new and used cars are.

The UCSR program develops its ratings based on actual crashes in Australia and New Zealand. Some 7.5 million drivers crashed between 1987 and 2015 in vehicles made from 1982 to 2015. Consequently, researchers developed two measures:

Crashworthiness – vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from being killed or seriously injured in a crash
Aggressivity – risk of death or serious injury caused to other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.

Comparison of passenger and SUVs

UCSR compared whether passenger vehicles or SUVs are safer in the large, medium and small segments. Note, a higher safety rating means a higher chance of the occupant or others being injured in a crash.

Passenger vehicle Occupant safety rating Others’ safety rating  SUV Occupant safety rating  Others’ safety rating 
Hyundai i30 hatchback 3.4% 2.8% Mitsubishi ASX 4.5% 2.6%
Toyota Camry 2.2% 3.0% Mazda CX-5 SUV 2.6% NA
Holden Commodore 2.0% 4.4% Toyota Kluger 2.3% 3.5%
      Toyota Hilux 2.8% 4.9%

Source: Compiled from Monash University Accident Research Centre Used Car Safety Rating (UCSR) program.

The ANCAP program had awarded all seven vehicles a 5-star rating for protecting their occupants. Overall, UCSR found occupant safety was higher in the passenger vehicles than the SUVs. But two SUVs had better ratings for the safety of others.

  • Safest to the occupant was the large passenger Holden, safest to others was the small SUV Mitsubishi ASX
  • Most dangerous to the occupant was the ASX and to others, the Hilux, followed by Holden.

It’s an interesting result. After all, nobody wants to choose between the safety of the driver and the safety of others. So how can we say SUVs are safer?

Monash says medium vehicles (passenger or SUVs) achieve the best balance of safety. Medium and large SUVs and commercial utes protect occupants as much as passenger cars. Unfortunately, small SUVs are worse for occupants than small cars. Like large SUVs and commercial utes, they are overly aggressive towards other road users.

Are pedestrians being hurt?

If aggressiveness is a problem with some SUVs, are more pedestrians being hurt? In the year to November 2018, 62 pedestrians died in NSW, the same as the 2015-17 average. Meanwhile, serious injuries were down 7% to 1,055 in the year to March 2018.

It appears pedestrians in Australia are relatively safe. They are not as endangered as in America, which has seen a trend of SUV and pick-up related deaths.

ANCAP says its safety ratings are designed to protect vulnerable road users. It will not award a 5-star rating for a new vehicle unless it has good Autonomous Emergency Braking. This helps avoid striking a pedestrian or cyclist. ANCAP strives to make sure all vehicles, not just SUVs are safer.

See Still hot demand for SUVs.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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