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Avoiding Vehicle Rollovers

​This Tailgate Talk is part of the NLTAPA collection.

As you pack up your car or utility vehicle for a trip, various dangers may be just around the corner. One threat is fearsome: auto rollovers. Slippery roads, dangerous curves, and other car crashes can all cause a car to roll. And you need not be driving recklessly for it to happen. In 1996, rollovers produced 10,071 deaths -- 30% of all vehicle-occupant fatalities. And they were responsible for 53% of single-vehicle crash fatalities in 1995.

A rollover can happen to anyone.

For cars, rollovers rank third in crash deaths, behind frontal and side-impact collisions. And for light trucks, such as pickups and SUV's rollovers are the leading type of fatal crash. Karien Postie, a 38-year old Allentown, Pa. woman died of head injuries driving her car last November. Her car slid sideways, left the road and rolled over, according to the police. The same month, Jose Diaz, a 20-year old man, was killed when his 1995 Geo Prizm overturned, and he was partially ejected. Diaz was driving at a high rate of speed and lost control of the car, police say. It hit a curb, a light pole and a fire hydrant before rolling over. Two passengers suffered minor injuries.

Ejections are a major problem.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that rollovers are extremely deadly because people are frequently thrown from the vehicle. They can also be run over, crushed by the vehicle, thrown against an object, or the roof can collapse onto a person's head. According to NHTSA, the chance of being ejected from a car is five times greater in rollovers than in other crashes.

Wearing your safety belt may help you avoid serious injury or death in a rollover. Belts are 45% effective in frontal collisions, but 75% effective in rollovers. "Seat belts are highly effective in rollovers," says Stephen Kratzke, NHTSA's director of risk avoidance standards.

Small SUVs may be prone to rollovers.

Utility vehicles tend to roll over more often than other vehicles because they're built to clear off-road terrain. They have a relatively short wheelbase (front to rear), a short track width (side to side), and a high center of gravity, which further contributes to instability.

In the most common type of rollover, the vehicle leaves the highway and its outside wheels dig into soft or rocky ground. The vehicle can easily roll when the driver tries to quickly whip it back on the road.

Rollovers also happen if drivers take sharp curves too fast, if their car is struck on the side by another vehicle, or if they drive onto a curb. Sometimes a vehicle can wind up rolling over when the driver is forced to swerve suddenly.

Driving behavior is a factor.

How you drive is probably the biggest factor influencing a rollover. Don't speed. Don't drink and drive. Don't be careless. Avoid sudden maneuvers, such as quickly whipping the steering wheel left and right, especially at high speeds. Take it easy on curves, and quickly get to know your vehicle's handling characteristics.

With rollovers, speed kills. NHTSA figures for 1996 show an average speed of 51.7 mph for all fatal crashes. But vehicles sped along at an average 62.5 mph when fatal rollovers ensued.  And alcohol is involved in more than 60% of fatal rollover crashes.

Young, less-experienced drivers are often more reckless, more inclined to speed, often consume alcohol, and frequently drive rollover-prone SUVs. The average age of drivers involved in fatal rollovers is substantially less than that for drivers in all fatal crashes, and they have several passengers aboard, NHTSA figures show.

How to correct a rollover.

If, despite all your caution, you find your vehicle heading for a rollover, you can take action to stay upright. If your wheels leave the road onto a soft shoulder, don't quickly spin the steering wheel back toward the highway. This could cause the vehicle to roll. Instead, ease the car backonto the road by giving the steering wheel a quarter turn to the left.

If your vehicle starts to skid, ease off the accelerator. If the rear is sliding, steer in the direction you want to go. Unfortunately, if something darts into your path, there may not be much you can do. If your vehicle is starting to tip, steer toward the tipping direction to try to bring all four wheels back on the pavement.

No matter what the situation, drivers should always remember that safe driving practices and a clear head can steer you away from an unfortunate car crash.

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