SUVs can be seen everywhere these days, plowing through snow drifts and gliding with authority over icy roads.
But the high-riding, four-wheel drive vehicles haven't made it all that much easier to get around in the ice and snow.
Experts say powerful sport utility vehicles have serious stability problems and no better grip on the road than cars but tempt their drivers to take risks. And that makes them just as susceptible to disaster -- or even more so -- on slippery roads.
"These vehicles somehow give you the perception of safety -- which you don't have in bad weather," said Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.
"The fact that it's easier to get your car going with four-wheel drive makes some people think it's easier to stop, too. When you see SUVs passing you in bad weather, you wonder is this what they're thinking."
A phenomenon of the 1990s, the sport utility vehicle began catching on with consumers early in the decade after Ford introduced its Explorer, luring car buyers with creature comforts plus a way to haul heavy loads, plow through the snow or venture off-road.
"It sold so well the rest of the industry realized there was a whole market of people who were looking for something with substance to it that made them feel safer," said Haig Stoddard, an analyst with WardAuto.com., an automotive information company.
But serious safety issues have emerged, including a risk of the vehicles rolling over because of a higher center of gravity.
That means SUVs are more likely than other passenger cars to tip if they slide sideways and hit something. Icy roads can increase the risk, experts said.
Though better design has reduced the risk of fatalities from rollovers in recent years as the SUV has evolved into more of a family car, fatality rates are still much higher than in other cars in instances of single vehicle rollover crashes.
In bad weather, some SUV drivers may be overly focused on their four-wheel-drive capability, which under normal road conditions gives them more control because it spreads traction and power among all four wheels, said Bill Visnic, a senior technical editor for Ward's AutoWorld magazine in Detroit.
"People buy four-wheel drive vehicles, and they overdrive them because they think they have something magic," Visnic said. But "the first time it snows each year, all the people in the ditch or on the road upside down are the SUVs. You can count on it. If you have a really slippery surface, it doesn't matter how many wheels you are driving. What matters is how much grip your tire has, and you don't have any better grip on the ground than all those other people out there with two-wheel drive."
A driver would be better off in a two-wheel drive, family sedan with winter or snow tires than in a four-wheel drive SUV with all-season tires, Visnic said.
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