The safety myth
Many people choose a 4x4 in the belief that their tall, boxy design is a magic formula for passenger safety, and the motor industry gives the impression that they are much safer than other cars.
However, neither crash tests nor the real-life safety record of 4x4s support this.
UK insurance industry figures from Churchill show that urban 4x4s are involved in 25% more accidents than saloon cars and do far more damage. Admiral Insurance also recently released figures showing that 4x4 drivers are 27% more likely to be at fault in the event of an accident.
The RAC Foundation says, "You could blame some of the higher accident rate for 4x4s on size. Drivers who are new to these cars might not realise how wide they are. There is also psychology involved - if you feel more secure inside a big 4x4, you might drive with less care than you should."
The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro-NCAP) carries out crash tests on cars available in Europe. Of the top 10 cars tested since 1998, none is a 4x4, and only three off-roaders make it into the the top 20 (see below).
Big 4x4s are right at the bottom of the class when it comes to pedestrian safety, getting an average Euro-NCAP crash test score of just 4 out of 36, compared with 10 and 13 for large and small family cars, respectively.
In October 2005, the British Medical Journal called for health warnings on 4x4s because of the dangers they pose for pedestrians, and when new test results were released in November 2005, the only car with a zero rating for pedestrian safety was a 4x4 - the Jeep Cherokee.
The UK Transport Research Laboratory released its annual report of deaths on Britain's roads in March 2005, providing hard evidence that the growth in popularity of big 4x4s is causing problems for road safety - 2004 saw the highest number of road deaths in seven years, reversing a long-term decline.
The TRL blames the increasing mismatch between the size of vehicles on the road for a 1% rise in people killed in accidents in 2004. Passengers in 'super minis' were 12 times more likely to be killed than people in a 4x4 when these vehicles collided. The principal factor is the extra weight of the larger car, as well as extra height, which can override the bumpers and side impact protection on the smaller vehicle.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists in the UK has warned drivers of urban 4x4s to be more careful behind the wheel.
Also in the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has described 4x4s as "totally unsuitable for the school run."
Why so bad?
They key problems are their height and weight. The extra equipment needed for 4-wheel-drive and the extra ground clearance for off-roading is useful on difficult terrain, but it comes at a price (more about this on our Mission page).
In the USA, where big 4x4s are even more common than in Chelsea, the safety record of 4x4s is appalling:
Urban 4x4s also have serious blind spots, extending more than 15 feet behind them. In America, approximately one parent a week backs over and kills one of their own children in their 4x4.[8.9]
As well as actually being dangerous, 4x4s really look the part. Their aggressive styling and size intimidates other road users, such as drivers of small cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Britain is not a militarised zone and we don't want it to look like one.
|Range of scores
|Range of scores
|Large family cars||27.6||9-36||9.9||4-18|
|Small family cars||26.8||13-35||13.3||2-16|
(ranked by occupant safety score, then pedestrian safety when tied)
11. Volvo XC90 (34, 10)
12. VW Toareg (34, 7)
20. BMW X5 (33, 2)
See www.euroncap.com for full details and test scores for individual vehicles.
2. Safe bet for a bump, Mail on Sunday, 10 October 2004
3. Admiral Insurance, in Sunday Times, 10 July 2005
4. Institute of Advanced Motorists, ""4x4" Mums asked to take extra care on School Run " www.iam.org.uk
5. “Incompatibility of vehicles in crashes” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 26 April 2003 www.iihs.org
6. “Pedestrians at risk from sports utility vehicles” New Scientist 13 December 2003 www.newscientist.com
7. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 10 February 1998 “New study of relationships between vehicle weight and occupant death rates helps put in perspective issue of crash compatibility” www.iihs.org
9. “Protecting children as vehicles back up" New York Times 7 November 2003
10. Sports utility vehicles and older pedestrians British Medical Journal 7 October 2005
11. Safety blow for Jeep Cherokee Times 27 November 2005