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SUV
Rollovers

The nation's top auto-safety regulator said sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks -- among the most popular and profitable vehicles sold in America today -- aren't safe enough and that consumers should think twice before buying one.

Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said SUV drivers are especially vulnerable to fatal rollovers because the vehicles' high center of gravity makes them more likely to tip during sudden maneuvers. Marking an intensified campaign to boost SUV safety, Dr. Runge warned that if auto makers don't make these vehicles safer and put more head-protecting air bags in them, the government could step in to mandate changes.

"The thing that I don't understand is people, when they choose to buy a vehicle, they might go sit in it and say, 'Gee, I feel safe,' " said Dr. Runge, who was an emergency-room physician for 20 years before taking over the top NHTSA job in 2001. "Well, sorry, but you know gut instinct is great for a lot of stuff, but it's not very good for buying a safe automobile." Dr. Runge said his agency is considering new performance standards that would push auto makers to install more safety technology in vehicles, particularly to deal with the risks from rollover and side-impact crashes.

SUV: Increased Rollover Fatalities

Rollover accidents accounted for just 3% of all U.S. motor-vehicle accidents in 2001, but they caused nearly a third of all vehicle-occupant fatalities, Dr. Runge said. An SUV occupant was three times as likely to die as a result of a rollover than an occupant of a passenger car, he said. Moreover, fatalities in single-vehicle rollovers increased in 2001 by 22% to 8,400 deaths, with pickups accounting for the biggest gain, an increase Dr. Runge called "astounding."

Dr. Runge said that among his top priorities for rule-making are rollover prevention and crash-compatibility issues. Crash compatibility refers to the mismatch between tall-riding SUVs and pickups and lower-riding cars. When a large pickup broadsides a car, for example, the car's occupants are 26 times as likely to die as the occupants of the pickup. That is more than three times as high as the rate in car-to-car crashes.

The NHTSA chief said airbags that protect the head are an effective safety tool in rollover accidents, according to the agency's limited research on the issue so far. One primary benefit, is that the airbags, which typically deploy from above the door and hang down to cover at least part of the window, help keep occupants from getting thrown out of the vehicle, which is critical to their protection in rollovers. Head airbags, which are also called side-curtain airbags or roof-rail airbags, are standard on many luxury cars but are often expensive options on mass-market vehicles, if they are even available.

Dr. Runge praised the growing number of so-called crossover vehicles that offer SUV styling and passenger room in a vehicle with a lower center of gravity and wider stance. "That's going to result in a vehicle that's more resistant to rollover," he said. "Responsible car companies will do this in the absence of the federal government. They're already at work."

Source: Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. . DETROIT (Jan. 15)

 

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