Dr. Dietrich Jehle, University at Buffalo professor of emergency medicine at Erie County Medical Center, and colleagues said drivers of passenger cars were more than four times more likely to die even if the passenger car had a better crash rating than the SUV.
In addition, the researchers found in head-on collisions between passenger cars and SUVs, drivers in passenger cars were nearly 10 times more likely to die if the SUV involved had a better crash rating.
The University at Buffalo researchers analyzed severe head-on motor vehicle crashes from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System database from 1995-2010. The database includes all motor vehicle crashes that resulted in a death and includes 83,521 vehicles involved in head-on crashes.
The crash ratings, from one to five stars, are based on data from frontal, side barrier and side pole crashes that compare vehicles of similar type, size and weight. The one- to five-star safety rating system was created in 1978 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Jehle, the study's lead author, said after manufacturers addressed the rollover problem with SUVs that plagued these vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s, such crashes are now much less common.
"Currently, the larger SUVs are some of the safest cars on the roadways with fewer rollovers and outstanding outcomes in frontal crashes with passenger vehicles," Jehle said. "But even when the two vehicles are of similar weights, outcomes are still better in the SUVs. In frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, due to bumper mismatch, crushing the occupant of the passenger car."
The study is scheduled to be presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine in Atlanta.