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Speaking Out On The Perils of SUVs

Jan 22, 2003 | The Los Angeles Times

Jeffrey W. Runge, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, stunned the auto industry last week in a speech by declaring that sport utility vehicles are not safe enough and consumers should reconsider buying them.

No federal regulator ever has delivered such a tough message about SUV safety, experts say, and it was doubly surprising given that SUVs account for virtually all of the profits earned by the domestic auto industry.

But Runge doesn't fit the mold of most federal bureaucrats.

Almost his entire career has been spent as an emergency room physician and not as a government employee or a political operative. At the North Carolina hospital where he worked, he treated 30,000 people, a third of them injured in automobile accidents.

With that experience, Runge's warning about SUVs has added credibility. Although SUVs accounted for just 3% of all highway crashes in 2001, they were responsible for about 30% of vehicle fatalities.

The reason is simple: The top-heavy vehicles easily roll over if an evasive maneuver is attempted or if the vehicles begin to spin. During a rollover, occupants can be thrown out the windows or killed when the roof collapses. And SUVs' heavy weight and high profile are deadly to occupants of the vehicles they hit.

The American public has come to think of SUVs as safe, something that makes them king of the road. But as statistics show, they not only are unsafe for occupants but also represent a high risk for drivers who must share the road with the behemoths.

Not long after Runge made the remarks, officials at NHTSA were downplaying them, saying they represent no change in the position of the agency and that Runge had made the same points before in a private meeting last year with reporters.

But safety experts across the country dismissed that as revisionist history.

"To me, the landmark feature of the speech was his assertion that SUVs are not safe enough to buy," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Rollovers are the most lethal crash you can have."

Rosemary Shahan, executive director of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, worried that if Runge continued to speak out, the Bush administration would get rid of him.

"I was astounded he would be so honest," Shahan said. "It was almost like somebody gave him truth serum."

The auto industry clearly was stunned by the speech. General Motors Corp., the world's largest auto manufacturer, lambasted Runge's remarks.

"According to NHTSA's own factual data, SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road and have contributed to the dramatic decline in the nation's fatality rate over the last decade," GM said. "To assert otherwise is not only contrary to the facts gathered by his own agency over the last decade but unfair to the thousands of men and women who have spent their professional lives making vehicles safer."

Runge's interpretation of the NHTSA data is clearly different. He noted that the fatality rate per 100,000 registered SUVs is three times higher than for passenger cars. How did consumers get the idea that SUV are safe vehicles?

About 10,000 people annually are killed in rollover accidents, prompting calls for NHTSA to take action. Runge stopped short of that, however, calling instead for a continued industry effort to develop and offer head-protection air bags. Such air bags help keep occupants inside the vehicles during a crash. But they seldom prevent injuries when roofs collapse, according to Ditlow.

Although Runge did not mention it, improving roof strength would help prevent half the deaths from rollover accidents, Ditlow said.

Carmakers could strengthen roofs for as little as $25 to $50 per vehicle, mainly by adding metal reinforcements in pillars and in cross structures, Ditlow said. Head-protection air bags, however, cost about $200 per vehicle.

"When he talks about head-restraint air bags, he is just showing his inexperience," Ditlow said.

Nonetheless, Runge's remarks could bring far-reaching benefits, Ditlow said.

"Eighty percent of people think SUVs look cool, but if they think they are death traps, they won't want them," he said.

As for the risks SUVs pose to other vehicles, Runge noted in his speech that there are 26 deaths in passenger cars for every one in an SUV in cases in which the cars are broadsided by the larger vehicles. That problem can be solved only by making SUVs lighter, lower and softer. Of course, doing all that to an SUV would make it more like a station wagon or the modern-day equivalent, a crossover vehicle. In his speech, Runge praised the industry's innovative work on crossover vehicles.

Why did Runge make the speech?

"We are all wondering what the turnaround was all about," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel at Consumers Union. "Runge is a new and very independent voice at NHTSA. We applaud his openness."

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