Sport utility vehicles are emerging from a long period of scrutiny with design and other changes that have markedly improved safety.
Influenced by deadly Ford Explorer rollovers linked to defective Firestone tires a decade ago, SUVs now sit lower on car frames -- not truck platforms -- and are equipped with stability technology that has cut down on the worst accidents.
"Drivers of today's SUVs are among the least likely to die in a crash," the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said in a report released on Thursday.
"With the propensity to roll over reduced, SUVs are on balance safer than cars because their bigger size and weight provide greater protection in a crash," the group, which is backed by insurance companies, said.
More than 32,700 people were killed in U.S. traffic crashes in all vehicles last year, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In addition to SUVs, pickups and vans were more prone to roll than passenger cars. More than 8,000 people were killed in rollover crashes in 2009, the latest available NHTSA figures on specific causes show.
Size may be the most crucial factor when comparing fatality.
All but three of 26 vehicles with the lowest death rates are mid-size or larger. More than half of those with the highest rates are small vehicles or mini cars, an analysis of crash statistics by the IIHS found.
The overall driver death rate for 2005-08 models during 2006-09 was 48 per million registered vehicle years, a large decline from previous assessments. SUVs had 28 per million, while pickups averaged 52 per million.
A registered vehicle year is one vehicle registered for one year or two vehicles for six months each.
The current death rate for SUV drivers in the latest IIHS study is half that of cars, partly due to vehicle redesigns, standard stability technology, and discontinuation of some smaller models that were prone to tip, the report said.
Additionally, vehicles with lower driver death rates also do well in front and side crash tests.
The current numbers for SUVs compare with an average death rate of 82 per million for 1999-2002 models, IIHS said.
SUVs are in the same class of light trucks as popular pickups and are a large factor in the resurgence of U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, a unit of Italy's Fiat SpA.
Bill Visnic of online buyer resource Edmunds.com said Ford's Explorer is still "the mainstream sell and the nameplate that everyone knows."
But he said GM does well with the Chevrolet Equinox and Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee remains the company's best-known vehicle.
Some SUVs are also known as crossovers for their more car-like appearance and handling characteristics. They have also penetrated the top echelon of U.S. sales.
SUVs that are bigger and more powerful than cars remain popular in an era of high gasoline prices. They are less efficient than cars as a class, although cleaner burning engines and gas/electric hybrid technology have boosted their mileage performance.