The 2007 model year saw a sharp increase in the number of sport-utility vehicles that scored highly on federal rollover crash tests, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Seventy-eight of current-year SUVs received a four-star rating in the rollover tests, according to an analysis by The Associated Press, compared with 48 in the 2006 model year and just one in 2001. More than 100 models are tested each year.
One apparent reason for the improved ratings: More new SUVs are equipped with anti-rollover technology that will become mandatory by the 2012 model year.
SUVs long have been controversial because they typically ride higher off the ground than passenger cars and have higher centers of gravity, and "thus are more susceptible to rollover if involved in a single-vehicle crash," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Rollovers kill more than 10,000 motorists in the United States every year, more than a third of motorists killed in the country annually, despite accounting for only 3 percent of all crashes.
Rollover ratings issued by NHTSA give consumers information on the likelihood of a rollover. The highest rating of five stars means a vehicle has up to a 10 percent chance of rolling over in a one-car crash. A four-star vehicle has a 10 percent to 20 percent risk and a three-star vehicle has a 20 percent to 30 percent.
In NHTSA testing, no SUV has earned a top five-star rating.
To guard against rollovers, automakers have increasingly installed electronic stability control into their vehicle lineup. The anti-rollover technology, which was first introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1995, automatically applies brakes to individual wheels when the vehicle begins skidding off course, helping to steady the vehicle.
Eighty-six percent of 2007 SUVs have stability control as standard equipment, up from 43 percent in 2005, the government reported.
Newly tested 2007 SUVs receiving the four-star rating include: Infiniti FX35, Mazda CX-7, Ford Edge and Explorer Sport Trac, Hyundai Santa Fe and Veracruz, Jeep Compass, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Volkswagen Touareg, Acura MDX and RDX, Suzuki XL7, and Saturn Outlook.
The 4X4 version of the Kia Sportage and the 4X2 version of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited also earned four stars. Test results were carried over for vehicles that were unchanged from the previous model year. A full listing can be found at www.safercar.gov.
Federal statistics show some progress in reducing rollover deaths. In 2006, 10,698 motorists were killed in rollovers, a 1.6 percent decline compared to the previous year. The rate of rollover deaths in 2006 per 100,000 registered vehicles was 4.55, a 3.6 percent decline.
In April, the government said electronic stability control would be required in all new vehicles by the 2012 model year, estimating it could save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives a year once it is fully deployed into the nation's fleet.
For pickup trucks, 74 of the vehicles from the 2007 model year earned four stars out of 89 pickups rated. That compares with 53 pickups from the 2006 model year earning four stars out of 71 pickups rated.
Government studies have found stability control reduces single-vehicle sport utility crashes by 67 percent and one-car crashes by 35 percent compared to the same models sold in previous years without the technology.
Light trucks, which include pickups and SUVs, account for about 53 percent of passenger vehicles sold nationwide.