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SUV Rollovers Get Red Flag From Federal Safety Board

Automakers Question Statistics And Say They're Getting Up To Speed On Remedies

Jan 16, 2003 | The Orange County Register

The nation's traffic-safety chief has hinted new safeguards might be mandated for sport utility vehicles, but automakers insist they're already moving in that direction voluntarily.

Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a speech this week at an industry conference that SUV owners aren't as safe as they think because of rollover hazards. Runge, whose agency can mandate the addition of safety equipment or changes in vehicle design, told the Wall Street Journal that new rules to prevent rollovers were among his top priorities and that NHTSA is considering new performance standards to reduce rollover risks.

Rollovers accounted for less than 3 percent of U.S. motor- vehicle accidents but a third of fatalities in 2001, Runge said. An SUV occupant was three times more likely to die in a rollover accident than a passenger-car occupant. In 2001, 8,400 people died in vehicle rollovers, a 22 percent increase.

However, an automakers' spokesman said Runge was selective in the statistics he cited.

"Sports cars are 20 times more likely to roll than SUVs because they're driven more aggressively," said Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, "which gets us back to driver behavior. Eighty percent of the rollover fatalities were not wearing their safety belts.

"SUVs do extremely well in front and side-impact accidents, which are 97.5 percent of all vehicle accidents," he added.

Many people buy SUVs because they feel safer in the larger vehicles, said George Peterson of AutoPacific Inc., an automobile marketing consulting firm in Tustin.

"They've always bought large vehicles because the perception is they're safer. In an accident (with a smaller car), you win," he said.

Safety was an important factor when Chuck Waite of Newport Beach bought a Ford Explorer for his son. Now he drives it. "But I'll never buy a small car again. I'm big and I like being up higher. SUVs are the only way to go."

Ford, which also owns Land Rover and Volvo with American headquarters in Irvine, already puts dual front and side airbags on its SUVs. Starting in 2002, Ford Explorers have offered side-impact curtain airbags, which offer greater rollover protection, as an option, said Ford spokeswoman Francine Romine. Much of Ford's safety research is being done at Volvo, she added.

Volvo spokesman Roger Ormisher in Irvine said, "When Ford bought Volvo, it made us the center for excellence in safety. Our XC 90 (Volvo's first SUV) has a roll-stability control system, using (gyroscopes) to avoid accidents, and curtain airbags are standard equipment on all three models." The automakers aren't the only companies working on the rollover-prevention issue. Iteris in Anaheim developed, with DaimlerChrysler, a lane-change detector that warns if a car is drifting. "Ninety percent of rollovers are caused by unplanned lane changes for which the driver then overcompensates," said Iteris spokeswoman Sheri Gold. "It's already used on Mercedes and heavy trucks, and we just announced last week that it's available on passenger cars as early as 2004." But improvements take time to incorporate into auto design, said Barbara Nocera of Irvine-based Mazda. "Manufacturers are phasing in safety features as the technology becomes available. As long as consumers want it, the companies will respond."

Ford's Romine agreed. "We see this as an industry issue. Does it need to be mandated? We think we can do this without government intervention."

However, consumers don't always demand safety features. The federal government forced automakers to install safety belts in cars and trucks, but many drivers and passengers don't wear them, even though they would pay a fine if caught.

Isuzu Trooper owner Emily Benavides of Santa Ana thinks the NHTSA should mandate safety improvements. "If it's going to make them safer, I think it's worth it. The automakers are going to do as little as they have to, but government can go overboard sometimes, so I'd like to see a happy balance."

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