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Regulator Criticizes SUVs On Safety Front

Jan 14, 2003 | USA Today The Bush administration's top auto safety regulator joined the growing chorus of sport-utility vehicle bashers Tuesday, saying he wouldn't drive those that scored lowest in government rollover ratings "if they were the last vehicles on earth."

Speaking at an auto industry conference, Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, chided automakers for not making SUVs as safe as passenger cars.

He noted that the popular trucks are much more likely to roll over in a single-vehicle accident and called for more work on designs and technologies that will keep them from tipping.

Runge also said NHTSA will propose guidelines this year for side air bags, which are becoming more common, especially in SUVs.

The comments represent his most direct criticism of the auto industry since taking over the agency in August 2001.

Most of his rare public comments have focused on increasing safety belt usage and decreasing drunken driving.

Runge said consumers must research the safety performance of vehicles, especially SUVs. He urged SUV buyers to take time to learn how to drive them and how stability control features, more common on newer models, behave in real-world driving.

"Not all SUVs are created equal, and I would urge people not to just take what salesmen have to tell them about safety features, but to do their own research," he said.

As for himself, Runge said he wouldn't drive an SUV that scored fewer than three stars in NHTSA's five-star rollover rating.

More than 30, or about one-third, of the 2002 SUVs tested by the agency earned just one or two stars, including the top-selling SUV, Ford Explorer, and other popular models such as Chevrolet Tahoe, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Mitsubishi Montero.

Automakers don't like NHTSA's rollover ratings, derived from a mathematical equation based on wheel width and center of gravity.

"We don't agree that the current static stability method is a good one," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said.

"It doesn't take into consideration stability control technology that greatly affects driving performance."

"NHTSA's current test doesn't factor in enhancements we make to suspensions, tire size and other handling features we put into our vehicles," General Motors spokesman Jim Schell said.

NHTSA is developing a test for rollover tendency based on driving maneuvers done on a track. A final standard for that test is expected this year. Meanwhile, the current rating method "accurately predicts rollover behavior of SUVs in real-world driving," NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said.

SUVs have been targeted increasingly by those who dislike their size and gas guzzling, including some religious groups and environmentalists. They have been the subject of negative advertising campaigns and vandalism.

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