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They were once the most dangerous vehicles on the road, but according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), SUVs have changed for the better. The non-profit group recently published its annual study on vehicle mortality rates, noting that SUVs have gone from having some of the highest death rates to some of the lowest.

Of the top ten vehicles with the lowest mortality rates in the IIHS study, seven were SUVs: the Ford Edge, Nissan Armada, Land Rover Range Rover Sport and LR3, each of which tied for the lowest score in the study at zero fatalities per million registered vehicles, and the Honda CR-V, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Acura MDX, which were close behind. That's a huge change compared to just ten years ago, when top-heavy SUVs were frequently involved in rollover crashes.

Why the change? According to the IIHS, it's mostly due to the widespread availability of Electronic Stability Control, a key safety feature common in recent SUVs that helps prevent rollovers. Indeed, each of the top-rated SUVs in the group's study comes standard with ESC.

"The rollover risk in SUVs used to outweigh their size [and] weight advantage, but that's no longer the case, thanks to ESC," said Anne McCartt, the IIHS's senior vice president for research.

Of course, it's not only SUVs that performed well in the mortality study, which looked at model year 2005 through 2008 vehicles. The Toyota Sienna minivan and the Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class premium sedans also topped the test with zero fatalities per million registered vehicles, and the Kia Sedona minivan and Saab 9-3 sedan also scored well. Among midsize sedans, the Honda Accord was ranked best with just 19 fatalities per million registered vehicles, while the Honda Pilot was top among midsize SUVs.

The test also highlighted one important factor that appears to make a significant difference in vehicle mortality rates: weight. Cars weighing less than 2,500 pounds saw 71 deaths per million registered vehicles, a number which dropped to just 41 deaths for cars between 4,000 and 4,500 pounds. SUVs saw the same trend, with 39 deaths per million between 3,000 and 3,500 pounds, which dropped to 20 per million for SUVs above 5,000 pounds. The lesson: even with all of today's advanced safety features, it's still better to have as much metal around you as possible.

View the full results of the study for more information.

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Jeffrey Archer is fortunate to have turned a passion for cars into a career. His wide-ranging automotive experience includes work for automakers and dealers in addition to covering the news. When not writing, he spends his time searching for unique cars on AutoTrader.com.

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