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You don't hear much about SUV rollovers anymore

It's no accident that there's fewer accidents.

Sales of SUVs plummeted in the Great Recession but climbed back as the economy recovered. They are as popular as ever. But have you noticed we seldom hear about SUV rollovers anymore?

SUV manufacturers made their vehicles safer. Not out of the goodness of their heart. They changed -- reluctantly -- because of civil lawsuits and government recalls. If not for product liability lawyers and federal regulators, the world would be a more dangerous place.

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SUVs are as popular as ever. But far safer.

At their peak in 2004, nearly 4 million SUVs rolled off the assembly lines every year. And they were killing people. Thousands of Americans died in SUV rollover crashes. Sport utility vehicles were far more likely to flip and roll than any other type of vehicle.

Rollovers were once synonymous with SUVs. Today's SUVs are less likely to roll than most pickups and many passenger sedans. This was not automakers responding to consumer demand. It was automakers being forced to fix design flaws. Those flaws were exposed by trial lawyers seeking justice for victims of SUV rollover accidents.

Product liability lawsuits made SUVs safer by focusing on specific design defects:

  • Tread separation - Firestone and other brands of SUV tires could fail at highway speeds, causing blowouts which made the vehicles jerk violently to one side  and flip over.
  • High center of gravity - SUVs were tall and narrow, prone to rolling on tight curves or sudden swerves. Today's SUVs have a wider wheel base and popular crossover models are built on car bodies rather than truck frames.
  • Instability - Drivers could not recover from a swerve or skid, resulting in collisions or rollovers. Litigation led to the introduction of electronic stability control, which evens out the traction to all four tires to keep the SUV upright.
  • Roof crush - People felt safe in a big ol' SUV. Until it rolled. Then the vehicle's own weight collapsed the roof, crushing and trapping the occupants. Lawsuits led to stronger roof supports, allowing many to survive a rollover.

Not to toot our own horn ...

The history of automobile safety features -- headlights, windshield safety glass, seat belts, air bags -- follows the history of fatal car accidents. Litigation often reveals that carmakers had the technology to save lives but balked at the added cost. Until a high-profile lawsuit or a class action forced their hand.

When lawmakers talk about "tort reform," they are really talking about making it harder to hold manufacturers responsible. Have some lawyers profited from product liability verdicts? Sure. Are we all better off because they won? Absolutely.

Want to read more? See Driven to Safety: How Litigation Spurred Auto Safety Innovations by the American Association of Justice.

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