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SUVs Blamed For Rise In Deaths

Apr 27, 2003 | AP

Regulators said last week that 42,850 people died in traffic-related deaths in 2002, the highest number since 1990.

That’s the population of a small city, like Chapel Hill, N.C., said Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, the chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

‘‘If somebody came in and had a chemical attack that wiped out the entire city, think of the public outcry and outrage from people in every corner of the country,’’ Runge said.

So what’s happening on the roads?

Automakers are quick to point to driver responsibility, or lack thereof. Certainly, not enough people wear seat belts and too many drink. But there is also another factor: the increase in the number of sport utility vehicles.

Rollovers of SUVs and pickup trucks accounted for more than half of the 734-death increase from 2001 to 2002, according to the traffic safety agency. Some independent safety advocates think that increasing use of seat belts, airbags and computer safety systems should have caused a dramatic decline in auto death rates but that the rise of rollover-prone vehicles has dampened their effect.

Rollovers account for a staggering 32 percent of automobile fatalities, more than 10,000 annually. And rollover deaths are increasing along with sales of light trucks SUVs, pickups and minivans. Since 1980, light trucks have grown from a fifth of the nation’s sales to more than half, and SUVs and pickups in particular are prone to upend because of their high centers of gravity.

Automakers, however, argue that rollovers are relatively infrequent and that SUVs are safer than cars in other types of crashes.

‘‘SUVs are two to three times more protective of their occupants in frontal, rear and side-impact crashes that make up 97.5 percent of all crashes,’’ said Jay Cooney, the director of safety communications at General Motors, in a statement earlier this year. Rollovers, he said, accounted for ‘‘only 2.5 percent of all crashes.’’

But auto safety advocates are not swayed by these arguments. Rollovers, they say, are a sort of traffic cancer — uncommon but deadly — that make SUVs slightly more dangerous for their own occupants than passenger cars.

‘‘You ask the industry about rollovers, and they say, ‘People shouldn’t drink and people should wear their seat belts,’ ’’ said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of technical policy for Consumers Union, the publisher Consumer Reports. ‘‘But those are beside-the-point points. There’s no argument there.

‘‘We need to ask manufacturers what they can do in their design to make sure there wasn’t a rollover to begin with,’’ he said.

The industry also points out that driver behavior plays an important role in rollover fatalities. In fact, 70 percent of fatalities in such accidents involve occupants not wearing seat belts. Moreover, from 2001 to 2002, the deaths of occupants in alcohol-related crashes increased 7 percent in SUVs, which was more than the 3.6 percent increase in overall alcohol-related fatalities.

‘‘If every SUV occupant wore safety belts, we’d save 1,000 lives per year,’’ said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the chief domestic lobbying group for most of the world’s major automakers.

But auto safety advocates are not swayed by these arguments. Rollovers, they say, are a sort of traffic cancer uncommon but deadly that make SUVs slightly more dangerous for their own occupants than passenger cars.

‘‘You ask the industry about rollovers, and they say, ‘People shouldn’t drink and people should wear their seat belts,’’’ said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of technical policy for Consumers Union, the publisher Consumer Reports. ‘‘But those are beside-the-point points. There’s no argument there.

‘‘We need to ask manufacturers what they can do in their design to make sure there wasn’t a rollover to begin with,’’ he said.

The latest statistics make the new and improved federal tests on rollovers, expected later this year, all the more noteworthy. Congress mandated the tests in 2000 after a spate of rollovers in Ford Explorers with Firestone tires.

In the meantime, it seems, nothing will change until everything changes. ‘‘We will make progress on rollovers when people buckle their belts, when they exercise judgment about what vehicles to buy and not buy those that are rollover prone and as manufacturers transition into more stable designs,’’ Runge said. ‘‘This is not just a one-dimensional problem.’’


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