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Sport utility vehicles aren't as safe as you think.

The Colorado Department of Transportation's repository of accident reports fills an entire room. Row after row of shelving units that reach up to the ceiling support hundreds of folders packed with paperwork submitted by law-enforcement agencies across the state. (No, they're not computerized; they're on old-fashioned paper.)

The documents are separated by year, but they aren't in strict chronological order; some offices, particularly in less populous parts of the state, tend to save up forms over a period of weeks or months before shipping them to CDOT, causing things to get fairly mixed up at times. And with so many officers from so many jurisdictions entering data, inconsistencies are abundant, particularly when it comes to an automobile type as relatively young as the SUV. Most records categorize the vehicles using the approved department code -- "UT" -- but a sizable number describe them as station wagons ("SW"), four-doors ("4D") and 4X4s, among other things.

These irregularities occasionally make it impossible for anyone who wasn't on the scene to determine what kinds of autos were involved in a particular crash. For this reason, assorted modifications were employed while gathering the data laid out below in an effort to make individual statistics about SUV accidents in Colorado as meaningful as possible.

1997 AND 1998 FATAL-ACCIDENT RATES

At the time of Westword's SUV analysis, the most recent complete year for which Colorado fatality records had been separated for review was 1997; also available for study were reports from the first four months of 1998. All of the reports from this sixteen-month period were examined; only hit-and-run incidents and unclear or ambiguous documents were omitted. Vehicles were separated into four divisions: SUVs, cars, trucks and other (vans, station wagons, motor homes, semi-trucks and so on). Data was gathered regarding the percentage of accidents for each type of vehicle, the percentage of those accidents that were one-vehicle crashes, and the percentage of accidents that featured rollovers. In this last area, only motorcycle accidents weren't counted.

In 1997, SUVs were part of 15.1 percent of all fatal accidents in Colorado -- a bit higher than might be expected considering their slice of the state's total vehicle pie (which was smaller then than its present 14 percent) but not radically so. Of those accidents, 44.7 percent were one-vehicle (the figure represents a virtual dead heat with trucks, which came in at 45.3 percent), with rollovers at 47.8 percent -- a good 12 percent higher than trucks.

The number of one-vehicle SUV accidents during the first quarter of 1998 seems even more extreme by comparison with other vehicles. Fatal SUV accidents accounted for 14.1 percent of total fatal accidents during that period -- close to what should have been expected given the percentage of SUVs. But of that total, 44.8 percent of SUV fatalities were one-vehicle crashes; trucks came next, with 26 percent. Rollovers again took most of the blame.

1999 FATAL-ACCIDENT RATES

CDOT will not complete its review of 1999 fatal accidents for several months, and the reports haven't been separated from less serious incidents. But Westword was able to gain access to 200 reports of fatal accidents from last year. Again, vehicles were separated into SUVs, cars, trucks and other, with a focus on the percentage of accidents for each vehicle type and the percentage of those accidents that were one-vehicle crashes. This time, though, data was also gathered regarding the number of fatal accidents that were weather-related. There was no differentiation made between various environmental factors; everything from snow to high winds was included.

Of the total fatal accidents surveyed, SUVs were involved in 18.8 percent (higher than would be anticipated by their numbers on the road), with 65.2 percent of those being one-vehicle wrecks -- considerably more than for any other vehicle type. (Rollovers took place in 76.6 percent of these accidents.) Finally, 10.9 percent of fatal SUV crashes took place in something other than fair weather. This was the lowest percentage for any vehicle type studied, but the numbers were so close -- other vehicles, 11.3 percent; trucks, 11.5 percent; cars, 12.9 percent -- that the result is a statistical wash. To put it another way, SUVs were basically just as good (or just as bad) as other vehicles when the sky broke open.

Other SUV numbers were uglier. Collisions involving sport utilities accounted for sixteen fatal accidents among those studied. In three of those incidents, pedestrians died after being struck by SUVs; one was a crash in which both vehicles were SUVs; and in another, an SUV driver was killed after being struck by a train. Of the eleven accidents left, SUV occupants died in three instances as opposed to eight in other vehicles. Those aren't good odds.

1999 ACCIDENT RATES

To get a more wide-ranging picture of SUV accidents in Colorado, Westword analyzed 1,000 incident reports from the first ten months of 1999; November and December accidents were not included because most reports from those months had not yet been filed at the time of the study. One hundred reports from each month were examined, with fifty coming from city and suburban areas and fifty representing rural and highway locales; otherwise, selection was random.

Among the communities, counties and municipalities represented: Alamosa, Arvada, Aspen, Aurora, Boulder, Breckenridge, Brighton, Canon City, Colorado Springs, Commerce City, Cortez, Craig, Delta, Denver, Dillon, Douglas County, Durango, Eagle, Eaton, Elbert County, Englewood, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Fountain, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Greeley, Lakewood, Lamar, Littleton, Mead, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Thornton, Trinidad, Vail, Westminster, Wheat Ridge and the vast territories overseen by the Colorado State Patrol.

The breakdown of numbers was straightforward: the percentage of SUV accidents, the percentage of injuries in SUV accidents, and the percentage of SUV accidents that were weather-related. Vehicles other than SUVs were not categorized, but were lumped in together.

Totals? SUVs were part of 28 percent of the accidents studied, or about double the anticipated sum. Moreover, injuries were reported in 28 percent of SUV accidents as compared to 27 percent of accidents featuring other vehicles. And 12 percent of SUV accidents took place in inclement weather, while only 10 percent of other accidents did. In this sample, then, SUVs were no better in poor weather than any other vehicle, and collisions were just as apt to produce injuries. Moreover, the vehicles got into twice as many accidents as might have been expected.

But most of them looked fine doing it.

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