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NHTSA Head Claims SUVs Are Unsafe

Jan 16, 2003 |

For Chicago resident Nydia Gregory, sport utility vehicles are the way to go. "I feel safer in it for one thing," she said.

In Atlanta, Mike Schoeffner agreed. "I feel safer in a brick home," he said. "I just feel safer in something that's sturdy."

And car dealers like Rob Buchman are happy to oblige them: "A bigger vehicle equates to safety."

But the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Jeffrey Runge, said Tuesday in a speech at an auto-industry conference in Detroit that some of the SUVs are so dangerous, he wouldn't buy one for his daughter even "if it was the last one on Earth."

These are strong words from an administration not known for getting all that tough on the auto industry. But when asked today if Runge would expand on his remarks, a spokesman said he would have nothing further to say.

But Runge said in his speech that SUV drivers are more vulnerable to roll-overs because of the vehicles' high center of gravity. "Unfortunately a lot of people who drive these vehicles want to drive them like cars," said Dale Jewett, a reporter for the publication Automotive News .

Robert Gottfred, who owns a body shop in Chicago, said, "We're seeing a lot more extensive and expensive damage on the SUVs for about the same mile-per-hour hit than in a car."

Gottfred said it's clear that the SUVs roll over -- and over, in many of these cases. "A lot of times they'll roll more than once and so you have impact from several different places."

And the most recent NHTSA statistics find that someone in an SUV is three times more likely to die in a rollover accident than someone in a car.

New Safety Measures Would Cost Auto Makers

Installing a side curtain and head protection air bags on SUVs would improve safety but that would mean re-engineering a lot of vehicles, which would be expensive.

"It would undoubtedly increase the price, yes," said Jewett. "Someone has to pay for the upgraded safety technology."

Runge's agency can force the industry to make changes, but the automakers are uniformly against government intervention.

General Motors, for example, said it would comply voluntarily but only if its competitors did, too.

Today, at the dealer level, Runge's words were hardly cause for concern. "I think people will listen to it and like a week later they'll forget what they heard and go back to their buying habits," said Buchman. Steve Ewing, president of Wade Ford in Atlanta, said his main business is sport utilities. "These headlines don't affect sales," he said.

More than 4 million SUVs were sold last year.

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