Vroom! Vroom! A Bumpier Road for SUVs?

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Along with cell phones, they are simultaneously the must-have and most-hated consumer item in America. According to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday, the number of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) has doubled since 1994. This increase will be no surprise to most small-car drivers, who have spent the last five years alternately cursing the behemoths and their owners — all the while trying to resist the temptation from buying an SUV of their own.

But it's a phenomenon that may well be hitting a red light. According to TIME business writer Daniel Kadlec, the five-year numbers reported by the Census Bureau ignore one important trend. "What’s important is how fast SUVs are selling today," he says, "and how fast they will sell in the future." There is every indication, says Kadlec, that SUVs’ popularity has peaked. "Growth has slowed in the last year, and let’s face it: Fads are fads, and these cars have run their course."

The sales slowdown may also, at least in part, be due to growing concerns about SUV safety. Because they are mostly built on truck chassis, SUVs have a high center of gravity, which makes them more likely to roll over than a car. In addition, the chassis-type construction, which is not designed with the energy-absorbing crumple zones now included in most cars and minivans, offers less protection to SUV occupants, especially if they are in collision with a similar vehicle. And perhaps the scariest is yet to come, Kadlec cautions. "The next big thing is an SUV hybrid, like the Lexus RX 300. They’re part car, part minivan and part SUV." And they outweigh the average sedan by roughly a half ton.