Crashtests 2020: SUVs – big cars, big risks?

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The trend towards SUVs continues unabated – every fifth car insured by AXA is now a sports utility vehicle. But these big, heavy cars cause up to a quarter more accidents than other cars – often with very serious consequences. 

Sports utility vehicles, or SUVs for short, have for years now enjoyed rampant popularity. Over the last ten years, the percentage of SUVs insured by AXA has more than doubled. A fifth of all the cars on the books of Switzerland’s largest motor vehicle insurer now fall into this category. Across Switzerland, 43 percent of all new cars sold last year were classed as sports utility vehicles. For their owners, the main reasons for buying them are their size, seating position, all-terrain capability, comfort, and safety, according to a representative survey of 1,000 Swiss citizens on mobility habits carried out by AXA. According to this study, around 90 percent of SUV drivers would opt to buy the same type of vehicle again.

The bigger the SUV, the greater the risk of an accident

However, owners of all-terrain vehicles are not only convinced of their vehicle's benefits – they also firmly believe in their own abilities. 90 percent of the drivers questioned rated themselves as safe road users. Despite this, other road users have a different opinion when it comes to thoughts on the safety of SUVs. Almost 50% of non-SUV owners think that all-terrain vehicles are dangerous for other road users. Furthermore, a third of non-SUV owners say they feel less safe if an SUV is traveling behind them.

This perception is confirmed by AXA Switzerland’s claims statistics. All-terrain vehicles caused almost 10 percent more liability claims than other cars. The difference is even greater for big SUVs – those weighing between 2,155 and 3,500 kilograms. In 2019, these vehicles caused 27 percent more liability claims than other cars. The bigger and heavier the SUV, the more frequently it causes a collision.

There is a similar picture for personal injury claims – the bigger the all-terrain vehicle, the more frequently it causes a personal injury, though the figures require closer examination. Whereas in the 40- to 80-year-old age category – the most frequent target group for SUVs – more accidents with personal injuries are caused by large all-terrain vehicles, this statement no longer applies if you include the 18- to 39-year-old group in the statistics. This has to do with the fact that younger drivers cause significantly more accidents, but from a statistical point of view, they drive SUVs less frequently.

Minor lapses in attention lead to major damage

So SUVs cause accidents more frequently than other vehicles – often with serious consequences for other road users. This relates in particular to the size and weight of the vehicles and also the height of their center of gravity and their bumpers. On conventional cars, the bumpers are almost always at the same height, so if there’s an accident, they can perform their function fully. If there’s a collision between a normal car and an all-terrain vehicle, this is only the case two-thirds of the time. So compared with all-terrain vehicles, an average car is more poorly protected, although it differs from SUVs only slightly in terms of size and weight. This is illustrated by the AXA accident researchers’ first crash, in which an all-terrain vehicle does not see a car approaching from the right. The SUV subsequently drives into the side of the car at around 60 kph. This inflicts significant damage to the station wagon, particularly its rear door, which is badly dented by the impact. The child in the rear seat receives the full force of the collision. Although it is protected by a child seat, its head and the left side of its body hits the seat bucket with considerable force. The driver of the station wagon hits the driver’s door, whereupon the side air bag is able to prevent more serious head injuries. The driver of the all-terrain vehicle sustains at most slight injuries. 

Electric scooter versus SUV – or David versus Goliath

There are not only more and more SUVs and cars in general on Swiss roads but also increasingly new modes of transport such as electric scooters. The mostly young, urban users of these light mopeds – the category to which most e-scooters belong – value their spontaneity and speed. But unlike heavy all-terrain vehicles, they are easily overlooked and offer significantly poorer protection. For example, the AXA study shows that only nine percent of e-scooter users always wear protective equipment.

Most people don’t know the traffic regulations for e-scooters

It’s not only a lack of protective equipment but also ignorance of traffic regulations that can be a problem for e-scooter users. And for good reason, because e-scooters are subject to the same rules of the road as bicycles, but many are unaware of this fact. According to the AXA study, just half of e-scooter users familiarize themselves with the applicable traffic regulations before their first journey. What’s more, the roads and particularly the cycling infrastructure that e-scooters have to use are not optimized for these novel means of transport. And on top of this, many users have an exaggerated opinion of their own abilities. Only 16 percent of all e-scooter users surveyed felt unsafe due to the way they themselves were driving. By contrast, over half of all e-scooter users saw danger in external influences. Specifically, almost three-quarters of those questioned said that they felt endangered by cars. However, in reality, most accidents are self-inflicted.

Collision leads to serious injuries for e-scooter user

Although e-scooter users often cause accidents themselves, the risk of collisions should not be underestimated. Due to the frequently uneven ground and the small wheels on e-scooters, their users are often unable to give hand signals when they want to make a turn. The consequences of a collision can be severe, as shown in the second crash, in which an e-scooter collides with an SUV. The e-scooter rider wants to make a turn, but the SUV driver realizes this too late and drives into the small road user from behind. With this impact alone, the e-scooter rider can be expected to sustain injuries to the legs and hips, and the second impact when they hit the ground will also probably result in considerable injuries. A helmet might have prevented worse head injuries but, like our dummy, almost four-fifths of the e-scooter users surveyed never wear protective equipment, as the AXA survey shows. The driver of the SUV comes away relatively unscathed from the collision.

Dangerous for children on bikes too

Whereas e-scooters have only featured on roads in recent times, bicycles are a familiar means of transport popular with children as well. Parents consider large road users in particular as a hazard for their children, as the AXA survey shows. After trucks, large cars such as all-terrain vehicles are ranked as the second-most dangerous road users for children. Specifically, 69 percent of those questioned rated all-terrain vehicles as dangerous or very dangerous for children.

New traffic regulations may exacerbate the problem

The danger to children may become even greater, because from January 1, 2021, new traffic rules have been in force that state that children up to twelve years of age are allowed to ride bicycles on the sidewalk. AXA Accident Research indicates that in the future unsupervised children will more often move from the sidewalk onto a pedestrian crossing, and car drivers will not see them in time. This scenario was reconstructed in the third crash test. A child on a bicycle swerves suddenly from the sidewalk onto a pedestrian crossing. The driver of the SUV misjudges the situation and does not brake until it’s too late, and there’s a collision. The child is struck on the torso by the high vehicle front and is immediately catapulted through the air with great force. Severe injuries can be expected as a result of this first impact and also the second impact, when the child hits the ground. A properly fitted helmet of the right size and shape prevents serious head injuries. The SUV driver is unlikely to be injured. 

Dangerous mix of unequal road users

These three crashes show that, in collisions, the drivers of all-terrain vehicles are scarcely injured in their large, high and heavy cars, whereas small, poorly protected road users in particular have to reckon with massive injuries in some cases. All road users must thus modify their behavior. Precisely because the size and weight of such large cars give their drivers a sense of security, it is important that they accurately assesses the risk they pose and remain alert when on the road. Smaller and more vulnerable road users should always wear protective equipment and familiarize themselves with the applicable traffic regulations. The latter is particularly important in the case of new modes of transportation.

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