4WDs remain a soft target, but the poor safety claims appear to lack substance, a new report claims
The Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) has investigated the crash-involvement of 4WDs on Australian and New Zealand Roads up until 2003, and the findings pretty much repudiate claims that SUVs are merely battering rams with power steering and air conditioning. 4WDs have become dramatically safer, it seems.
KEY FINDING 1: “The increase in 4WD vehicles on the road does not seem to be associated with increases in the proportion of car drivers being killed in multi-vehicle crashes.”
In 1992, 4WD sales represented about 10 per cent of all new-vehicle sales. A decade later, in 2003, the proportion of 4WDs being sold had practically doubled, to almost 20 per cent. The report then examined the proportion of car drivers killed in multi-vehicle crashes in Victoria. They dropped from more than 60 per cent in 1992 to around 40 per cent in 2003. It seems the rise of the 4WD on Australian roads has not led to a tsunami of car drivers being killed. What has increased is the proportion of car drivers being killed in single-vehicle crashes – not a 4WD-related problem.
KEY FINDING 2: “Rollover crashes are a very important and very dangerous crash type for 4WD drivers.”
There’s no getting around it: 4WDs roll over more often than cars, and a rollover is a very bad event to be in. Using data from Vic, NSW, Qld, WA and NZ spanning the period 1999-2003, it transpires that 4WDs accounted for six per cent of seriously injured drivers. Yet they also accounted for 18 per cent of drivers seriously injured in rollovers. 4WDs accounted for just five per cent of fatally injured drivers, but represented 19 per cent of the drivers killed in rollovers. When you look at all reported crashes, 4WDs account for five per cent – but they also represent 11 per cent of rollovers. In short, 4WDs are twice as likely to roll over, three times more likely to seriously injure you in a rollover, and almost four times as likely to kill you in a rollover. The report also found there was “little to distinguish between the rollover rates of small, medium and large 4WDs”. Additionally, the rollover problem is significantly more serious on high-speed roads, as well as for young drivers.
KEY FINDING 3: “Over all crash types combined, large and medium 4WDs have good crashworthiness.”
This statement from the report underplays the reality of the findings. What was found was that large 4WDs had the best overall crashworthiness, followed by medium 4WDs.
The following table summarises the findings the crashworthiness rating quoted is the number of serious injuries per 100 crash-involved drivers (the bigger numbers represent the least crashworthy vehicles).
Vehicle Crashworthiness Rating
Large 4WD 2.75
Medium 4WD 2.89
Luxury Car 2.96
Large Car 3.28
Commercial – Ute 3.52
Overall average 3.69
Medium Car 3.72
Sports Car 3.98
Commercial – Van 4.09
Compact 4WD 4.10
Small Car 4.12
People Mover 4.35
Light Car 5.05
What this table demonstrates is that the risk of serious injury in a people mover is almost 60 per cent higher than in a large 4WD.
Have another look at that table. Small cars are the country’s top sellers, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina fuel price hike.
To be fair, the report also found that large 4WDs were 55.8 per cent more aggressive than the market average, although medium 4WDs were only 14.6 per cent more aggressive than average. Compact 4WDs were less aggressive than average, and also less aggressive than large cars.
KEY FINDING 4: “The rate of rollovers for 4WDs is falling relative to the rate for cars.”
When only tow-away crashes were considered (that is, all rollovers, but not minor drive-away bingles) the proportion of 4WD rollovers has been slashed. Between 1987 and 1990, nine per cent of 4WD tow-away crashes were rollovers. Between 2001 and 2003 that had fallen to just five per cent – a drop of almost 45 per cent in real terms. Over the same period, the proportion of rollovers for cars has been fairly constant. This is evidence of better crash-avoidance technology being included in the more modern 4WDs.
KEY FINDING 5: “Car collisions with 4WDs are becoming less likely to lead to fatality.”
The report examined the probability of a car driver being killed in a head-on with a 4WD in a higher speed-limit area. Between 1991 and 2003, that probability fell by almost 50 per cent. There was more than a 10 per cent chance of death in the period 1991-1995, but that fell to about 5.5 per cent in the period 2001-2003. In the same period, the chance of a car-to-car head-on fatality dropped from about four per cent to about three per cent.
KEY FINDING 6: “A process for accelerating the implementation of ESC technology into Australia vehicles, and particularly 4WD vehicles, could have great potential for reducing the rollover crash problem.”
The report notes the historically slow uptake of safety technology into the Australian vehicle fleet. It’s unlikely that the reduction in rollover noted above owes much to electronic stability control – it’s too new a thing. The drop is probably due to design fundamentals like more grip, better tyres, better brakes and superior chassis dynamics in modern 4WDs. Yet recent reports indicate the potential reduction in single-vehicle 4WD crashes as a result of ESC could be as high as 67 per cent.
The message here is clear: you’re a dill if you buy a new 4WD without ESC technology. It’s the magic cure that transforms the 4WD rollover issue from a mountain into a molehill.