If you drive an SUV, you know that part of their allure is the feeling of safety they provide. Even compact SUVs can seem studier than their shorter, svelter car cousins. But studies haven't supported that impression of safety with facts -- until now.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has compiled data from auto accidents occurring on U.S. roads between 2006 and 2009. The major finding? Fatality rates for SUV drivers were significantly lower than for drivers of other models. How significantly? About 50%.

Before you rush out to junk that midsize sedan, though, you should know a few things:

1. The IIHS study attributes much of the SUV segment's improvement to the widespread availability of electronic stability control (ESC). Before that development came along, top-heavy SUVs were more prone to roll over in collisions, which largely negated their safety benefits of size and weight.

2. The study only looked at vehicles from the 2005 - 2008 model years. The data implies that vehicles from other years may fare similarly well, but only if they have ESC. (By 2008, ESC had become standard equipment on 96% of all SUVs.)

3. Not all cars performed poorly. Luxury vehicles seemed to do especially well. In fact, the best performing ride of all was the Audi A6, followed in the #2 spot by the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Neither was associated with any fatalities during the study period.

Not surprisingly, the worst performers were cars that fell into the IIHS's "mini" car category, like the Chevrolet Aveo and the Kia Rio. (Only "mini" sports cars fared worse.) There were also a few pickups on the bottom rungs -- namely, the Nissan Titan, Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Ranger. That could be because as of 2008, ESC came standard on just 11% of pickups.

At the top of the scale, "large" SUVs like the Nissan Armada and Land Rover LR3 performed slightly better than "very large" models like the Chevy Suburban. In all, seven models -- the Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class, Toyota Sienna, Ford Edge, Nissan Armada, Land Rover Range Rover Sport, and Land Rover LR3 -- had no fatalities at all. 

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