Arlington, Virginia – Modern SUVs and pickup trucks pose far less risk to people in cars and minivans than those of previous generations, primarily due to improved design of all vehicles, according to a new report by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Until recently, SUVs and pickups were more likely to kill occupants of other cars or minivans in crashes when compared to cars or minivans of the same weight. The study found that it is no longer the case for SUVs, and the risk for pickup trucks is much less pronounced.

Among one- to four-year-old vehicles weighing 3,000 to 3,499 lbs (1,360 to 1,587 kg), SUVs were involved in crashes that killed car or minivan occupants at a rate of 44 deaths per million registered vehicle years in 2000-2001. That rate dropped by nearly two-thirds, to 16 deaths, in 2008-2009. In comparison, cars and minivans in the same weight category were involved in the deaths of other car or minivan occupants at a slightly higher rate of 17 per million in 2008-2009.

The researchers attribute much of the change to improved crash protection in cars and minivans, thanks to side airbags and stronger structures, and newer SUV and pickup designs that align their front-end energy-absorbing structures with those of cars.

The IIHS said that the more compatible designs are the result of efforts by automakers, the government and the IIHS to address the problem of “mismatched” vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked automakers to address the compatibility issue amid concern about the changing vehicle mix on U.S. roads. In response, automakers and the IIHS led a series of meetings in 2003 to come up with solutions.

The companies agreed to build the front ends of SUVs and pickups so that their energy-absorbing structures would line up better with those of cars, reducing the likelihood that the SUV or pickup would override a car in a collision. The automakers also pledged to strengthen head protection in all vehicles, which they accomplished by installing more head-protecting side airbags. The deadline for implementing the compatibility changes was September 2009, but many of the 2004-2008 models in the study already complied.

The IIHS said that the results don’t contradict the basic physics of crashes, and a small, lightweight vehicle is going to fare worse than a big, heavy vehicle in a crash, but the study showed that beyond weight, differences in vehicle styles don’t have to be a safety problem.

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