Yes, it's true. When aExplorer weighing 4,120 lbs. (1,869 kg) smashes into the side of a Accord weighing 2,980 lbs. (1,352 kg) at 33.5 mph (54 km/h) none of us would want to be an occupant in the latter.
But before sport/utility vehicle (SUV) haters cast automakers into the same politically incorrect purgatory reserved for tobacco companies and handgun makers, let's look beyond the headlines generated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's thorough and balanced Status Report on Crash Compatibility.
Within each weight class, pickups and SUVs have much higher single-vehicle crash death rates than cars. SUVs weighing less than 2,500 lbs. (1,134 kg) have a death rate more than twice that for passenger cars in the same weight and class.
Single-vehicle crashes account for 41% of all deaths in passenger cars, but they account for 65% of all deaths in SUVs. In pickups, single-vehicle crashes account for 59% of all occupant deaths. A major factor: SUVs and pickups are more likely to be involved in rollover crashes.
Occupants of SUVs are safer in two-vehicle crashes, even after adjusting for weight. The smallest SUVs had an annual occupant death rate in two-vehicle crashes per million vehicles of 54, compared with 89 for pickups and 83 for passenger cars weighing between 2,500 and 3,000 lbs. (1,134 and 1,361 kg).
Within the 4,000- to 4,500-lb. (1,814 to 2,041 kg) range, the risk falls to 29 per million vehicles for SUVs vs. 44 for pickups and 49 for passenger cars.
In two-vehicle crashes, 45% involve another car or van. Only 7% of the time is the other vehicle an SUV. It is three times more likely that the other vehicle will be a pickup (21%) or a medium- or heavy-duty truck (20%).
When all crashes are considered, collisions between SUVs and passenger cars account for 4% of occupant deaths.
In short, your SUV will protect you more effectively in two-vehicle crashes, but a passenger car is a safer bet when you lose control on your own.
Even Brian O'Neill, IIHS president, professes some confusion over the media reaction to the study.
"It's been all over the place," Mr. O'Neill says. "The whole world has this view that all deaths occur in two-vehicle accidents, but it just isn't so."
He is convinced, however, that the growing weight and mass differentials between the popular large SUVs and average passenger cars present a safety risk and a crucial engineering challenge.
To critics who allege that IIHS is just providing data to support increases in liability insurance premiums for SUV owners, Mr. O'Neill says it's just not so.
"If insurance companies wish to raise premiums on SUVs they have to justify it on the basis of their own claims experience," he says.
And so far that isn't happening.
"At this time we have not seen a distinct pattern in liability claims from sport/utility vehicles," says Steve Witmer, a spokesman for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Bloomington, IL.
"We did see a bit of a change in heavy pickup truck accidents, but it wasn't enough to break them out into a separate rating system."