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Crist, Others Attack SUV Ads

Apr 24, 2003 | Miami Herald Television ads showing sport-utility vehicles traveling at high speeds around sharp turns and obstacles have drawn a warning from consumer advocates in 40 states and territories.

Led by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, the states' top law enforcement officers sent letters to 16 carmakers requesting they review ads that depict the unsafe operation of SUVs.

The ads could be considered deceptive because they portray SUVs as having carlike handling and performance capabilities, Crist said. That could open the door to litigation.

The letters come in the wake of the hundreds of rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers with Firestone tires. More than 270 deaths and 800 injuries were reported nationally in rollover accidents.

'We're just saying, `Tone it down, bring it down before someone gets hurt on the highways,' '' said Brad Barbin, a lawyer in Crist's office. ``The advertising pushes people to the limits of their truck's performance capability.''

But some auto industry officials don't see the distinction between ads for SUVs and high-performance cars.

''Why are they singling out SUVs?'' said Jeremy Anwyl, president of Edmunds.com, the online vehicle information site based in Santa Monica, Calif. ``If you want to go after the car companies, just go after them for every vehicle. The portrayal of vehicles in relatively unsafe conditions goes back to day one.''

SUVs are three times more likely than passenger cars to roll over, Barbin responded. SUVs are taller and narrower, giving them a higher center of gravity.

''The higher center of gravity does not allow them to handle high-speed turns or emergency maneuvers,'' Barbin said. ``What we're trying to do is get people to slow down on the highways because trucks can't make those kinds of turns.''

The attorneys general want the 16 carmakers to ''comply with the spirit'' of a settlement all 50 states reached with Ford Motor Co. in December. Ford agreed to pay $51.5 million to settle allegations that its advertising exaggerated the safe loading capacity and maneuverability of its SUVs.

Ford agreed to include in its ads the disclaimer: ``Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.''

The settlement stemmed from rollover accidents involving the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires. Separately, Bridgestone/Firestone also paid $51.5 million to settle claims relating to the advertising of its tires.

Florida received about $1.6 million from the Ford settlement. Barbin was the lead lawyer in the investigation.

The states will use $30 million from the Ford settlement to fund a nationwide consumer education campaign, beginning this fall, on SUV safety.

Carmakers' ads ''may encourage unsafe driving habits on the nation's highways,'' Crist said in a statement. He was unavailable for comment.

Without naming any specific carmaker, Barbin cited an ad featuring a professional driver maneuvering an SUV around logs spilling off an 18-wheeler and a boulder that tumbled down a mountainside.

Among the manufacturers receiving the attorney generals' letter were DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota.

'From General Motors' perspective, we appreciate the concern of the attorneys general but, if anything, we have been more conservative in our advertising than some of our competitors,'' said Jay Cooney, a GM spokesman. ``We do believe it's very important that people understand that trucks do not behave in the same way as cars.''

DaimlerChrysler, which makes Dodge and Jeep SUVs, didn't have a response to the letter. But spokeswoman Ann Smith said the carmaker carries out stringent reviews of its ads with safety experts.

The Federal Trade Commission has never taken any action against carmakers over SUVads, an agency spokesman said.

Manufacturers are required to post warning labels within sight of the driver about their vehicle's rollover propensity, said Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The attorney generals' letter comes about three years too late, according to Art Spinella of Bandon, Ore.-based CNW Marketing Research, an independent market research firm that follows the automotive industry. That's because SUVs built on a passenger car-based platform are growing in popularity.

Last year, about 3.4 million truck-based SUVs were sold, an increase of 2.9 percent from 2001.

By comparison, 681,000 car-based SUVs were sold last year up 53 percent from the prior year, Spinella said.

''Of the people who buy a car-based sport utility, 73 percent of them believe it's based on a truck,'' Spinella said. ``Of those who buy a truck-based sport utility, 91 percent know that it's based on a truck.''

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