One of the reasons that SUVs are still selling well—even at time of record crude oil prices—is that people believe that the mammoth vehicles are safer than smaller ones.

But that belief, though widely held, is simply wrong. For years, studies of automotive fatalities have found that SUVs are no safer for their passengers than are midsized cars. SUVs may get the better of a head-on collision with a smaller car, but they have high centers of gravity and lower maneuverability, which makes them more likely to roll over or get into accidents. At the same time, SUVs are far more dangerous to other vehicles on the road than are cars: the added mass that is supposed to be boon for an SUVs occupants is a bane for other road users. On net, SUVs make the roads more dangerous—even for SUV drivers.

Today, the New York Times reports that the safety gap between SUVs and cars is widening. The most relevant quote:

People driving or riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the SUV craze is that people’s perceptions of what’s safe are so far off the mark. SUVs feel safe because they’re big and high off the ground. But that’s precisely what makes them unsafe. This is definitely one case where it’s better to pay attention to hard numbers than to our instincts. If you have the choice, it’s far better to spend your money on safety features than on size. (But better still—for both your health and other people’s—is to spend less time in cars and trucks, and more time walking.)