News » Cover Story

Sporting Chance

There's no safety in numbers for SUVs



Since moving to Alma, Colorado, a scenic mountain community 90 miles west of Colorado Springs, 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. 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.

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.

Unrequited love

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.

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 (Denver's alternative newsweekly) 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 complete accounting of the results, see the related story "Adding It Up" at

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 11 fatal accidents in 1999 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 Ave., 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 vehicle died in a four-car pileup that included another SUV. The severity of these accidents doesn't surprise Julie Rochman, vice president of communications for the Arlington, Virginia--based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group supported by auto insurers. To her, the explanation for these lethal results is as simple as one-two-three.

"The first major reason why utility vehicles are relatively hostile to cars is geometric," she says. "Cars are built so that if they collide with other cars, the stiff parts of the structure, like the frame in the front and the side, engage each other. But SUVs ride so much higher that their frames often override the stiff parts of the car and end up driving through much softer sheet metal.

"Second, SUVs have very stiff front ends, while cars have soft front ends that are designed to crumple and crush and absorb energy in a crash. And the third issue is mass. A typical car is probably about 1,000 pounds lighter than the typical SUV. And when it's big versus small, big usually wins. The laws of physics tell us that."

Driver beware

As for industry experts, they tend to prefer ten-dollar words when explaining why SUV-versus-car crashes can be so treacherous. For instance, the lack of correspondence between the impact zones in cars and SUVs is an issue of "compatibility," and the stiffness of SUV frames and front ends -- a distinct disadvantage when it comes to accidents involving pedestrians or bicyclists -- falls into the province of "aggressivity." But some frightful consequences lie behind this highfalutin vocabulary. NHTSA has been conducting vehicle tests since 1979 and has focused a great deal of attention over the past several years on LTVs, or light trucks and vans, the vehicle classification that includes SUVs. And again and again, says Rae Tyson, NHTSA director of public affairs, studies have come back showing the same thing: "If there is a collision between a light truck, van or SUV and a passenger car, the fatality will generally occur in the passenger car, not the LTV."

How often is this the case? An NHTSA report attempts to quantify the carnage. "In collisions between sports utility vehicles and cars," it says, "5.6 drivers died in the car for every driver who was killed in the striking SUV."

In addition, sport utility vehicles have a well-documented proclivity for rolling over. NHTSA's Tyson says that an analysis of fatal accidents in the United States during 1998, the most recent year studied, showed that the rollover tendency was 22.12 percent for cars, 40.63 percent for vans, 43.47 percent for pickup trucks, and a chart-topping 62.27 percent for SUVs. (This last figure falls between the Colorado SUV rollover numbers from 1997 and 1999 that were generated by Westword's study.)

Of course, rollovers don't always result in fatalities, and when they do, other dynamics are frequently at play -- such as the failure of a driver or passengers to wear seat belts. Over half the deaths in rollovers occur when people are ejected from a vehicle, which is why Tyson believes that folks in SUVs, especially, would be crazy not to buckle up.

Yet if SUVs are so dangerous, why haven't insurers jacked up rates to gargantuan proportions? Carole Walker, executive director of the Englewood-based Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA), another group supported by the insurance industry, says that rates are generally based on years of hard evidence, and SUV testing is in its infancy.

But Walker notes that something else is at play, too: As demonstrated by NHTSA crash ratings, which gave only one 2000 model (the Dodge Durango 4-Door 4X4) a front-impact rating of less than three stars, SUVs are pretty good at protecting the passengers inside them.

Relative safety

It's the other folks who need to watch out. Amy Johnson, 21, called Greenville, North Carolina, home. But on June 28, she was in the Rocky Mountains, driving southbound on Colorado Highway 9 with two friends, ages 20 and 22, in a 1997 Ford Explorer. In front of the Explorer near milepost 68 was the Volvo containing Amy Majikas and her mother, Janet. Amy knew the road well -- it wasn't far from her home -- but she was taking things slow and steady since they were in a construction zone with a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Plus, this particular highway sported just two lanes, and for vehicles attempting to pass, visibility was beyond tricky. The sight lines were flat-out lousy.

Nonetheless, Johnson decided that the Volvo wasn't going fast enough. Amy Majikas remembers watching in her rearview mirror as the Explorer accelerated behind her before swinging past the double yellows into the lane designated for oncoming traffic. But as Johnson pressed the gas pedal toward her floorboard, she was confronted with a vision that instantly told her she'd made a serious error in judgment.

It was another sport utility vehicle. Headed straight for her. In a society that places so much emphasis on transportation, it makes perfect sense that a person's choice of vehicle should be given tremendous symbolic importance. Men with sleek red sports cars are alternately prized for their machismo or belittled as sufferers of penis envy, women behind the wheel of minivans are assumed to be mother hens to a brood of junior soccer players, and so on. Drivers of sport utility vehicles certainly aren't immune to this phenomenon -- and over time, their reputation has gone downhill.

Bill Brouse, president of Brookfield, Wisconsin's Sport Utility Vehicle Owners Association of America (SUVOA), a newly formed national organization intended in part to combat what Brouse sees as negative stereotypes applied to SUV owners, believes that all too many people see those like him as "bad drivers who don't understand the limitations of their vehicle."

Brouse's statement can't be dismissed as idle paranoia -- not when members of Colorado's law-enforcement community echo such sentiments.

"A lot of people aren't used to driving a larger vehicle, and they believe the ads that show SUVs bursting through snowbanks and so forth," said Captain Steve Smee of the Colorado Highway Patrol. "But even in four-wheel drive, SUVs don't stop any faster than other vehicles. In fact, most of them take longer to stop because they're so heavy. That's why, when bad weather hits, so many of them end up in a ditch."

State Trooper Rezabek saw this scenario played out repeatedly when he was stationed in the Colorado Springs area during the late '80s. "There was a two-day ice storm that turned Monument Hill into an ice-skating rink you wouldn't believe," he remembers. "And every time I'd go there during the storm, nothing would be off the road except SUVs -- and they'd all be on their roof. These people would think that because they were in a larger vehicle with four-wheel drive they could go faster safer and stop faster safer in those conditions. But they couldn't."

Skip Masterson, a state trooper based in Golden believes such misconceptions are compounded by the growing number of drivers moving directly from cars, most of which are built relatively low to the ground, to SUVs with a much higher center of gravity. "The newer SUVs may drive like cars, but they are totally different," he says. "They brake differently, they steer differently, they do everything differently. And a lot of people get in them and just don't take the time to learn how to drive them safely."

Such observations may seem like generalizations, but Dr. Ron Noel, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, says that they are founded in fact. In two separate studies (one made public last October, the other due for introduction in August), Noel found that an SUV's design can give drivers an unrealistic idea about how fast they're going.

"A person's perception of speed has a lot to do with how high they are above the ground," Noel says. "The closer you are to the ground, the faster you perceive you're moving -- so if you're in a go-cart doing 15 miles an hour, you think you're really zooming. But if you're in an SUV, you may be going the speed limit, but you feel like you're moving very slowly."

By Noel's calculations, a person motoring at 60 mph in a Lincoln Navigator SUV and a guy in a Honda Civic putting along at 40 mph feel as if they're moving at the same speed. He adds, "People who learn how to drive on an SUV may not be as affected by these kinds of things. The real difficulty comes in when someone switches from a car to an SUV. Someone who knows what to do when they hit ice and snow in a car may find that their experiences don't switch over that well to SUVs, and they'll wind up going much too fast."

Noel doesn't see his studies as an attack on sport utilities, and the state troopers feel the same about their comments; they don't want to ban SUVs, just inspire people to drive them with more care.

Masterson doesn't own an SUV, but his son does: a Chevrolet Blazer. "But before I let him drive it," he says, "I took him out into a snowy parking lot to show him what it would and wouldn't do."

Making a safer SUV

But things were different last June 28. According to Thomas's reconstruction of events, the Ford Explorer driven by Amy Johnson was passing Amy Majikas's Volvo when Johnson saw a 1997 Jeep Cherokee occupied by Mary Richardson, 42, and her son William, 9, both from Ellisville, Missouri, and Stanley Schumm, 72, of Fort Collins. Johnson, in the Explorer, immediately tried to get back into line behind the Volvo, but in doing so, she clipped its side near the back of the vehicle.

The Explorer escaped further damage, Thomas notes; it went off the side of the road, coming to rest in a field. But Amy and Janet Majikas weren't nearly so lucky. The impact with the Explorer sent the Volvo into a counterclockwise spin that caused it to cross into the northbound lane directly into the path of the Jeep Cherokee.

At that point, there was nothing anyone could do: The front of the Jeep smashed into the passenger side of the Volvo. The initial point of impact was toward the Volvo's rear, but the speed at which the collision took place coupled with the centrifugal force created by the spin was too much for even a car as well-built as this one. Everything from the Volvo's bumper to the seat in which Janet Majikas sat was crushed, with the door pillar striking her in the head.

Janet never had a chance.

For years, auto manufacturers denied that sport utility vehicles presented any special on-road threat; Dr. Ricardo Martinez, a former government safety regulator, told the New York Times in March that when he first suggested back in 1998 that SUVs might be unsound, "the industry was so upset you would have thought we shot their dog."

The howling changed in March, when car makers such as General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and Honda suddenly announced that they would alter the designs of future SUVs to improve their crash compatibility with smaller vehicles. And in May, Ford went even further, declaring as part of a "corporate citizenship report" delivered at an Atlanta shareholders' meeting that sport utilities are bigger polluters than most other vehicles, thereby contributing in a greater way to the depletion of the ozone layer.

But while it is cutting back on production of its largest model, the Excursion (a move that probably has to do with escalating gas prices as well), Ford has no plans to stop making SUVs, whose profit margins can exceed $15,000 per vehicle. Instead, says Sara Tatchio, a Ford safety public-affairs spokesperson based in Dearborn, Michigan, the company wants to make its SUVs better. Ford has developed the "Blockerbeam," a steel contraption that's mounted beneath the front portion of vehicles like sport utilities to prevent smaller cars from submarining under them; it's already on new Excursions and will be expanded to other models soon. And this summer, Ford is debuting the Escape, a new sub-compact SUV that is intended to address compatibility and aggressivity issues.

"It has a lower height," Tatchio notes, "and a unibody design that allows the energy of a crash to be sent around the occupants. And we were able to make the front less stiff, which is good for compatibility with pedestrians and people on bicycles." She acknowledges that these features will boost the cost of the Escape and may make repairs more expensive, too -- "but they'll improve safety, and that's what's most important to us."

Tatchio avoids mentioning another possible motivating factor behind such features: looming federal regulation. Hints of screw-tightening, at least in terms of emissions, arose last year when the Clinton administration recommended that SUVs be held to much more stringent standards. (Auto-industry pressure has prevented this proposal from becoming reality thus far, but the issue is set for further debate in the U.S. Senate this month.) More recently, Washington heavy hitters such as Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader, have begun turning up the heat on SUV issues.

"More regulation of SUVs is long overdue," says Claybrook, who served as the administrator of NHTSA during the Jimmy Carter administration. "Their tendency toward rollover hasn't really been addressed, the fuel economy requirements for SUVs are essentially zilch, and the new airbag requirements just announced by the Department of Transportation fall short when they come to SUVs. Because of the stiffness of their front ends, the force level of a crash is transmitted directly to occupants rather than absorbing it, as cars are designed to do. But the auto companies successfully lobbied for a lesser safety standard for airbags -- 30 miles per hour as opposed to 25 -- because they didn't want to redesign the front ends of SUVs to try and solve this problem." Claybrook adds that Public Citizen may file suit against the Department of Transportation over the airbag ruling "because we don't think the decision is substantiated in the record."

In late May, NHTSA issued its first-ever rollover ratings for SUVs and other vehicles using a star system to spotlight those most and least likely to land on their top (none of the nearly 30 SUV models tested garnered more than three of a possible five stars), and the federal Department of Transportation is recommending that such tests become mandatory; the latter proposition could be codified before the year is out.

"When we first started doing crash-testing, only about a third of the vehicles we tested got four- or five-star ratings," Tyson says. "But over time, consumers became increasingly interested in crash survivability, and manufacturers noticed. Now about 85 percent of all vehicles get four or five stars -- and we hope the same thing will happen with rollovers. If someone who's shopping for an SUV looks at a vehicle that gets only one star and another that gets four stars and he buys the four-star SUV, we think the manufacturers will respond."

Learn and live

That's all well and good, Public Citizen's Claybrook says, but it doesn't erase the hazards associated with SUVs. "I'm glad manufacturers like Ford are looking at gradually taking positive steps," she says. "But there's increasing numbers of SUVs being sold now. And even though the people who are buying them are generally older, higher-income people who aren't as prone to poor driving as some demographics, they'll eventually become third-hand SUVs driven by young kids who drive dangerously. And that will make them dangerous for many years to come."

The crash that killed 51-year-old Janet Majikas last June didn't quite manage to claim the life of her daughter. But Amy Majikas certainly didn't come away unscathed. The injuries she sustained after her Volvo was broadsided by the Jeep Cherokee -- a broken pelvis and numerous broken ribs, not to mention a concussion and a plethora of bruises and cuts from shattered glass -- were serious enough to require emergency transport to a hospital in Denver. After her release, she was confined to a wheelchair for six weeks and had to use a walker for a month after that. "But at least I only had broken bones and not muscle tears or internal injuries," she says. "I was very lucky." Her psychological recovery was slower. And the conviction of Amy Johnson, the driver of the Ford Explorer that had caused the accident, on a charge of careless driving resulting in death, provided her with little comfort.

As the March 14 date for Johnson's sentencing neared, the members of the Majikas family -- Amy, her father and two brothers -- were asked by prosecutors in Fairplay, where the hearing was to take place, what kind of punishment they felt the young woman deserved. At first, Amy Majikas wasn't sure. But in the end, she understood what should be done.

In the end, what mattered most was that Janet Majikas had been a teacher. She'd dedicated her life to this pursuit (as had her husband), and her love of the profession proved to be contagious: One of her sons was already a teacher at the time of her death, with the other still in school but following the same path. So rather than pushing for Amy Johnson to receive time in jail for her role in the accident, the Majikas clan argued for community service -- and this wish was granted. "She has to talk to students who are about to get their driver's licenses at my mom's school in Levittown [near Fallsington], and my brother's school in Levittown, and the school my mom graduated from, which is in Levittown, too," Majikas says. "We figured that if we touched one person to get them to learn about driver's safety, it would be a lot better than having her sit in jail."

Johnson's willingness to fulfill this sentence means a lot to Majikas. "She's a good person," she says. "She just made a really bad choice, and she understands that; she really does. I forgive her." She pauses. "I never knew what forgiveness meant until I forgave that woman."

Majikas concedes that she's still having a hard time coming to terms with what happened, especially with the first Mother's Day since the accident and the anniversary of Janet's death having just passed. That's why she's pouring her energy into her work at, of all places, an insurance agency. One of the agency's specialties: auto policies.

Her message to SUV drivers is a simple one. "Sitting up that high can give you a false sense of confidence. So know your vehicle. Know your limits. Don't tailgate. And drive safely. Please."

Michael Roberts writes for Westword, Denver's alternative newsweekly. To view the details of the 1997, 1998 and 1999 SUV accident data compiled by Westword, visit our Website at

Add a comment

Clicky Quantcast