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SUV Rollover Risks Kept Quiet

Sep 20, 2000 |

Just how risky are SUVs when it comes to possible rollovers?

If you can't find figures to help you make an educated assessment, CBS News Transportation Correspondent Bob Orr says you can blame the auto industry and Congress.

While SUVs are among the most popular vehicles in America, they are also the riskiest when it comes to rollover accidents. But, critics say the auto industry has hidden that danger from consumers to protect profits.

Because they sit higher off the road than cars, sport utility vehicles are far more prone to rollovers—the leading cause of death on America's highways.

New fatality statistics show 10,694 people died last year in rollovers. And sport utility vehicles, by far, had the highest rate, with 62 percent of all SUV deaths occurring in rollovers. That's nearly three times the rate for cars, which is 22 percent.

In addition, government tests indicate even the most stable SUV is more likely to roll than the least stable car.

But, that information has not been shared with consumers. Congress—under pressure from the auto industry—so far has blocked plans to publish rollover ratings.

Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety says it's purely a matter of economics. "Some SUVs have a $15,000 profit to the manufacturer in them. The average sport utility vehicle has about a $5,000 profit. The manufacturers don't want to lose a single sale and they're afraid if rollover ratings get out, they'll lose sales."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last Spring was prepared to include rollover risk on its safety Web site.

But automakers complained the ratings would not be accurate. Many SUVs, they argued, have been redesigned for stability; others have added side air bags. And the fact is, many rollovers are caused by bad drivers.

"There are other factors related to the environment, the vehicle and the human factor, all of which contribute to the rollover potential," says Josephine Cooper of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Congress, which takes millions in political contributions from the auto industry, bought the argument.

But that was before the Firestone/Ford tire scandal exploded with 103 deaths in rollover accidents. Now the pressure is coming from the public, and Congress now seems poised to let NHTSA release its rollover rates.

"It takes a Ford Explorer to come crashing through that door to say 'listen, there's public safety at stake here,'" says Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La, whose House Commerce Committee is investigating the Firestone tire situation.

NHTSA hopes to have the rollover ratings posted by the end of the year. But critics say sadly, it required a summer of fatalities for public safety to take a front seat to money and influence.

In a related story about a Ford vehicle problem not directly linked to tires, CBS News has learned that Ford expects the NHTSto open a preliminary investigation into complaints about a part on Explorers that's supposed to prevent rollovers.

No known accidents, injuries or fatalities are linked to problems with the part, called the "front swaybar link," which is a front suspension piece that keeps the vehicle level on turns.

NHTSA received 11 vehicle owner complaints about the part in 1995 and three in 1996, mostly about noise and handling. The complaints usually surfaced in cold weather states or Canada.

Ford thinks it's not a safety issue but says it will act quickly and cooperate with NHTSA. Ford met with NHTSA on the matter Tuesday.

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