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Auto Defect Inquiries, SUVs Criticized

Jan 15, 2003 | UPI

The federal auto safety agency is investigating 480,000 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans after an air bag on a 2000-model failed to deploy in a crash that killed the driver.

The driver lost control of the car, which slammed into a concrete bridge rail at 43 miles per hour, and suffered fatal head injuries despite wearing a seat belt. The driver's side air bag did not deploy, a National Highway Transportation Safety Agency spokeswoman said.

Ford sold more than 431,000 Taurus and Sable sedans last year.

NHTSA also has opened an inquiry into 150,000, 2002-model GMC Envoys and Oldsmobile Bravadas after receiving 36 reports of the sport-utility vehicles stalling without warning.

In some cases the engines would not re-start, causing steering and brake systems to fail.

NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge, Tuesday told an auto industry conference in Dearborn, Mich., consumers should think twice before buying a sport-utility vehicle because their rollover rate is three times that of passenger cars.

"Large passenger cars and minivans are the safest way to move around large numbers of people," Runge, a former emergency room physician in North Carolina, told the Automotive News World Congress.

Runge said SUVs are more rollover-prone because of their higher center of gravity. Department of Transportation statistics said 9,882 people were killed in rollover crashes on U.S. roads in 2000 8,146 in single-vehicle crashes. Fifty-one percent of all SUV fatalities were linked to rollovers compared to only 19 percent of car deaths.

Nearly a third of the 95 SUVs rated for rollover resistance by NHTSA in 2002 including the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Chevrolet Tahoe earned just two-stars or fewer on five-star scale.

"I wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth," Runge said. "My daughter drives a sedan. I drive a large sedan that is over 3,000 pounds. And my wife drives a station wagon."

NHTSA plans to begin a dynamic rollover crash test later this year that will measure track width, electronic stability control, choice of tires, suspension and brakes of a vehicle. The agency's 2001 rollover ratings were based on a mathematical formula using a stationary vehicle's center of gravity and tire track width to determine its propensity to tip over. In the new test, vehicles will be driven on a track to simulate real-world driving conditions.

NHTSA also is expected to propose guidelines for side curtain air bags this year.

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