Sporting Chance

There's no safety in numbers for SUVs.

 Since moving to Alma, Colorado, a scenic mountain community not far from Fairplay, Amy Majikas hadn't gotten to see her mother, Janet, nearly as often as she would have liked.

After all, Janet lived on the eastern end of the continent, in Fallsington, Pennsylvania, a lovely historic village near Levittown. But Janet was a teacher -- a dedicated, committed teacher -- and when she learned about an environmental-education course that was being offered last June by the science school at the Keystone Center in Keystone, Colorado, she saw it as an opportunity to change that equation. Not only would she be able to pick up valuable teaching tips, but she'd have the opportunity to spend some quality time with her daughter.

At first things went as planned. Janet thoroughly enjoyed her time at the Keystone Center, and her reunion with Amy, then 29, was wonderful. But just after 10 a.m. on June 28, 1999, everything that had been good about the trip vanished amid a cacophony of squealing tires and crunching metal.

In a typical accident, a car is no match for an SUV.
Anthony Camera
In a typical accident, a car is no match for an SUV.

It shouldn't have happened that way. Amy had a good driving record, and the vehicle she was piloting as she and her mom headed southbound on Colorado Highway 9 that morning was a 1985 Volvo sedan -- a vehicle renowned for the way it protects its occupants during crashes. Volvos are the types of cars concerned parents want their kids to own.

So what happened in those few seconds to, in Amy's words, "tear our whole family apart"? The answer to that question has to do with SUVs -- sport utility vehicles.

Coloradans certainly love their SUVs. In October, a U.S. Census Bureau report divulged that Colorado boasts more SUVs per capita than any other state; around 14 percent of drivers (one out of every seven) drives such a rig -- nearly double the national average. And that number is likely to grow. "They're probably the hottest segment of product for any manufacturer right now," says Ron Green, general manager of John Elway Ford Downtown. "People are buying them for all kinds of reasons -- as people movers or because they're cool or fashionable or whatever. It seems like they can't build enough of them."

But this surge of popularity comes at a time when SUVs -- generally described as passenger vehicles on an elevated, truck-like frame -- are coming under increasing scrutiny from activists and government researchers armed with disquieting statistics. For instance, a 1999 federal analysis overseen by Dr. Hans Joksch of the University of Michigan stated that in 1996, approximately 2,000 people killed when their car slammed into an SUV would have survived if the collision had involved a standard passenger car -- meaning that about 5 percent of the 40,000 folks who perished in U.S. auto accidents that year might still be walking around if SUVs didn't exist.

Given the popularity of SUVs between its borders, Colorado would seem to be the ideal laboratory to investigate the flaws, if any, built into these vehicles. But no government study of this issue has ever been completed here, and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the repository of accident reports from across the state, doesn't track specific vehicle types involved in crashes.

For this reason, Westword undertook an extensive study of SUV mishaps in Colorado. Among the incidents studied were virtually every fatal accident in Colorado during 1997 and the first four months of 1998; 1,000 accidents of varying severity, minor to major, from the first ten months of 1999; and an additional 200 fatal accidents from last year. In the end, nearly 2,000 accident reports were examined, and the findings appear to call some myths about SUVs into doubt even as they lend credence to the University of Michigan study and others like it. For a more complete accounting of the results, see the related story "Adding It Up." But highlights include the following:

* In 1999, 28 percent of the accidents surveyed involved SUVs -- approximately twice as many as would have been anticipated based on their sheer numbers.

* SUVs are reputed to be safer than other vehicles in foul weather, but the 1999 data did not confirm this supposition. About 12 percent of the SUV accidents studied were weather-related, versus 10 percent for all other vehicles.

* Of eleven 1999 fatal accidents involving a collision between an SUV and another type of automobile, occupants of the SUV died in only three instances, as opposed to eight single or multiple deaths in other vehicles.

* In 1997's fatal accidents, SUVs rolled almost 48 percent of the time -- a far higher percentage than any other auto type. Figures from 1999 are even more striking: Of 46 fatal SUV accidents investigated from that year, 30 of them were single-vehicle crashes, with 23 of those, or almost 77 percent, involving a rollover.

Definitive conclusions shouldn't be drawn from these results; the sheer volume of reports in Colorado (well over 100,000 in 1999 alone) meant that sampling had to be used in some instances, and such methodology has statistical limitations. But the data strongly suggests that car drivers who see SUVs bearing down on them from behind should exercise caution.

A lot of caution.

Not every crash involving a sport utility vehicle ends in tragedy; SUVs can be in fender-benders, too. But of late, some of the most destructive and noteworthy accidents in Colorado have involved SUVs. On January 16, a fifteen-year-old Brazilian national lost control of his Chevrolet Suburban while trying to park it at a Boulder McDonald's, killing a University of Colorado student and injuring his girlfriend. On April 3, a Toyota 4Runner driven by a man who had a seizure behind the wheel plowed into the Denver Spoke, a bicycle shop at 1715 East Evans Avenue, reducing the building to rubble as surely as a grenade or a bazooka might have. On May 10, the driver of a Jeep Cherokee died after striking a parked and empty CDOT truck. And on May 23, a Denver man driving a sport utility died in a four-car pileup that included another SUV.

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