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McCain to Ask Top Regulator To Testify On SUV Standards

Jan 29, 2003 | The Wall Street Journal Adding fuel to the debate over the safety of sport-utility vehicles, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain will ask the government's top auto-safety regulator to testify on whether new regulations are needed to reduce SUV-related accidents.

Since questioning the safety of sport-utility vehicles in a Jan. 14 speech in Dearborn, Mich., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Jeffrey Runge has kept a low profile. The Bush administration has sought to downplay his comments, saying they didn't amount to a blanket indictment of SUVs.

The planned hearing which a McCain aide said would be held sometime in February threatens to give critics of SUVs a new platform for attacking the vehicles, despite the surge in those vehicles' popularity in the U.S. during the past decade. The Arizona Republican has clashed with auto makers before over fuel-economy standards and safety regulations, and environmental and religious groups are already blasting large SUVs because they consume more fuel than minivans or cars.

But the most serious challenge is coming from Dr. Runge, who warned in his speech that his agency could require safety improvements if auto makers don't proceed with improvements more quickly. An aide to Dr. Runge, a former emergency-room physician, said Tuesday night that the administrator is prepared to testify before Sen. McCain's panel if asked.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based industry group, said her organization views the planned hearing as a chance for Dr. Runge to "clarify" his views on sport-utility vehicles.

In his Dearborn speech, Dr. Runge cited federal data showing that an SUV occupant in 2001 was three times as likely to die as a result of a rollover as an occupant of a passenger car. He also said his agency is considering performance standards that would prod makers to install more safety technology in vehicles, such as head-protecting airbags.

Auto makers say Dr. Runge's comments obscured federal data showing that a high number of rollover deaths involve people not wearing seat belts. Other industry officials remain upset over remarks Dr. Runge made to reporters following the speech, in which he suggested he wouldn't allow his children to drive any vehicle that gets a low score in the government's ratings system for assessing the propensity of vehicles to roll over. Auto makers and some safety advocates have criticized that system which is based on a mathematical formula that involves the height of a vehicle's center of gravity as misleading, and the agency is at work on a new ratings system.

Any move by the Bush administration to impose new regulations on sport-utility vehicles is fraught with political overtones; Michigan is traditionally a swing state in presidential contests, and auto makers have relied on SUVs to fatten their profits. Mr. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, is also a former lobbyist for General Motors Corp.

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