Crash researchers have found lumbering SUVs to be less dangerous than previously thought, despite their potential to cause more mayhem than smaller vehicles.
But that is not to say the beasts have received an unqualified safety tick.
They are still considered dangerous in the hands of young drivers, vulnerable to roll-over crashes carrying high risks of serious head injuries to their occupants, and a threat to other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists likely to be harmed by their high bonnets and rigid structures.
Even so, public health research leader Michael Keall of Otago University's Wellington campus admits surprise at results of an assessment of almost 24,000 vehicles involved in injury crashes in 2005 and 2006.
Not only were below-average crash rates found for SUVs of all sizes, but the best results were recorded in the heaviest of their three categories, those weighing more than two tonnes.
Large SUVs had an overall injury crash rate of just 0.57 per cent compared with an average of 0.8 per cent across 11 vehicle categories.
The highest was 0.98 per cent for sports cars.
"It's an interesting result and I was expecting to find 4WDs were rather more dangerous," Dr Keall said yesterday. "Previous research has shown some clear negatives about SUVs in terms of safety, but they are not as unsafe as many people make out."
Dr Keall, assisted by researchers from Monash University in Melbourne with funds from organisations including Land Transport NZ and the Automobile Association, said that was possibly because of how they were being driven and who owned them.
His team's research paper, published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, found only one teenager among owners of the 304 large SUVs involved in injury crashes in the survey.
The paper says SUVs are clearly a safety concern, but only once a collision occurs. It points to previous research showing how SUVs can be "highly damaging" in collisions with cars, given their overall mass, the stiffness of their front sections and their high centre of gravity.
Such factors are listed as a recipe for high "aggressivity" - meaning a greater likelihood of inflicting serious injury or death on other drivers.