Will Big-Car Drivers Pay The Price

What the debate over SUVs may mean for owners

William and Janice Lykes believe that only a sport utility vehicle (SUV) can withstand Michigan’s merciless winters. The Lansing, Michigan, couple is partial to their Mercury Mountaineer’s hefty size, truck-like capabilities and high seating–all characteristics that some government and insurance officials would like to change. The Lykes enjoy their SUV and, if necessary, would grudgingly pay higher premiums for liability insurance, a possibility for SUV owners nationwide.

“The safety of the vehicle is more important than what the insurance companies would charge,” says William Lykes, an industrial hygienist who says his auto insurer, Auto Owners, is not yet charging higher liability rates. If it does happen, he says, “I would complain to my local representative. I shouldn’t be penalized for making a personal choice.”

Those very concerns are currently under nationwide debate. At issue: should SUV owners pay a price, and should auto companies make SUVs more “compatible” with passenger cars? The debate heated up this year when the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, an influential research arm of the insurance industry based in Arlington, Virginia, released a study revealing that light trucks–pickups, minivans and SUVs –”are hostile to cars” since they cause greater damage to occupants in lighter-weight cars.

The study showed that passengers in cars weighing less than 2,500 pounds (subcompact cars) who are hit broadside by pickup trucks or SUVs are 47 times as likely to die as occupants in the larger vehicles that strike them. The death risk dropped to 27-to-1 if the car weighed more than 2,500 pounds. Keep in mind, however, that only 4% of deaths of people riding in passenger cars have occurred in collisions with SUVs.

Of course, bigger vehicles have an advantage over smaller ones. The mismatch has caused concern because of the growing popularity of SUVs: 12.6 million are now registered in the United States. This year alone, an estimated 2.5 million are expected to be sold, compared with a mere 961,000 sold in 1988.

As a result, some insurance companies and government officials want to see SUVs made more compatible with passenger cars. This would include lowering the height of the vehicle and making its structural front end crumble in a frontal crash.

The Big Three auto dealers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, are exploring ways to make the vehicles “friendlier” in crashes–including adjusting the ride height and improving road handling–but have stopped short of committing to dramatic changes. They’re also examining how passenger cars can be made safer by adding side airbags and building sturdier doors.

“SUVs are big because that’s what customers want,” says Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety at the international department for the American Automotive Manufacturers Association. “If the marketplace demands something different, then auto companies will design something different.”

That hasn’t satisfied some auto insurers. Liability insurance is based on the driver’s age, driving record, driving patterns and other factors, but doesn’t take into consideration the size or type of vehicle because it was initially assumed that “all vehicles were created equal,” says Steve Goldstein, vice president of the Insurance

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