OBJECTIVE: The popularity of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) is growing, and they are increasingly being used as family vehicles. Because of the large size of SUVs, relative to passenger cars, parents may perceive that they are safer family vehicles. However, little is known about the safety of children in SUVs, compared with passenger cars. The objective of this study was to determine the relative risk of injury to children involved in crashes in SUVs, compared with those in passenger cars.

DESIGN: From an on-going motor vehicle crash surveillance system, a probability sample of 3922 child occupants 0 to 15 years of age, representing 72396 children in crashes of either SUVs or passenger cars (model year 1998 or newer), from 3 large US regions, was identified between March 1, 2000, and December 31, 2003. Injuries were defined as concussions and other brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, facial fractures and lacerations, internal organ injuries, extremity fractures, and scalp lacerations. Logistic regression modeling was used to compute the odds ratio (OR) of injury for children in SUVs versus passenger cars, both unadjusted and adjusted for several potential confounders, including differences in child seating position, restraint use, vehicle weight, exposure of the child to a passenger airbag, and whether the vehicle rolled over.

RESULTS: A total of 38.2% of children were in SUVs and 61.8% were in passenger cars. The average weight of SUVs was 1317 lb greater than the average weight of passenger cars. Among all children in the study, those restrained appropriately were less likely to be injured (OR: 0.25; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.15-0.45) and those in the front seat were more likely to be injured (OR: 2.06; 95% CI: 1.33-3.21). In both vehicle types, children exposed to a passenger airbag were more likely to be injured than were those who were not (OR: 4.70; 95% CI: 2.36-9.37). Rollover crashes increased the risk of injury in both vehicle types (OR: 3.29; 95% CI: 1.88-5.76) and occurred more than twice as frequently with SUVs (2.9%, compared with 1.2% with passenger cars). There was a trend for increasing vehicle weight being a protective factor with both vehicle types (OR: 0.86; 95% CI: 0.73-1.01). After adjustment for all of the aforementioned factors, the risk of injury was not significantly different for children in SUVs versus passenger cars (adjusted OR: 1.50; 95% CI: 0.88-2.57). Especially detrimental for children in SUVs was being unrestrained versus restrained in a rollover crash (OR: 24.99; 95% CI: 6.68-93.53).

CONCLUSIONS: Despite the greater vehicle weight of SUVs, the risk of injury for children in SUVs is similar to that for children in passenger cars. The potential advantage offered by heavier SUVs seems to be offset by other factors, including an increased tendency to roll over. Age-appropriate child restraint and rear seat positioning are important, particularly for children in SUVs, given the very high risk of injury for children restrained inappropriately in rollover crashes.
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Date Published
2006 Jan
ISSN Number
Alternate Journal