Auto-Safety Czar Warns Drivers of SUV Dangers

A Rise in Fatal Rollover Accidents Prompts Regulator to Seek Action From Car Makers

Published: 15-Jan-2003


By KAREN LUNDEGAARD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

DETROIT -- The nation's top auto-safety regulator said sport-utility
vehicles and pickup trucks -- among the most popular and profitable vehicles
sold in America today -- aren't safe enough and that consumers should think
twice before buying one.

Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, said SUV drivers are especially vulnerable to fatal
rollovers because the vehicles' high center of gravity makes them more
likely to tip during sudden maneuvers. Marking an intensified campaign to
boost SUV safety, Dr. Runge warned that if auto makers don't make these
vehicles safer and put more head-protecting air bags in them, the government
could step in to mandate changes.

"The thing that I don't understand is people, when they choose to buy a
vehicle, they might go sit in it and say, 'Gee, I feel safe,' " said Dr.
Runge, who was an emergency-room physician for 20 years before taking over
the top NHTSA job in 2001. "Well, sorry, but you know gut instinct is great
for a lot of stuff, but it's not very good for buying a safe automobile."
Dr. Runge said his agency is considering new performance standards that
would push auto makers to install more safety technology in vehicles,
particularly to deal with the risks from rollover and side-impact crashes.

Increased Fatalities

Rollover accidents accounted for just 3% of all U.S. motor-vehicle accidents
in 2001, but they caused nearly a third of all vehicle-occupant fatalities,
Dr. Runge said. An SUV occupant was three times as likely to die as a result
of a rollover than an occupant of a passenger car, he said. Moreover,
fatalities in single-vehicle rollovers increased in 2001 by 22% to 8,400
deaths, with pickups accounting for the biggest gain, an increase Dr. Runge
called "astounding."

Dr. Runge's comments come at a time when auto makers are facing increasing
criticism of SUVs and trucks, which surged in popularity in the U.S. during
the past decade. Environmental groups blast large SUVs because they consume
more fuel than minivans or cars. Other groups argue their high fuel
consumption deepens America's dependence on Mideast oil.

But Dr. Runge's concerns, presented in a speech at an auto-industry
conference and in an interview, represent perhaps the most serious challenge
to auto makers' light trucks and SUVs. That's because the NHTSA has the
power to force changes in vehicle design that could cost companies money for
such new devices as rollover sensors and head airbags. Companies could find
it difficult to pass all these costs on to consumers, who have shown
themselves to be very cost conscious.

Bully Pulpit

As NHTSA administrator, Dr. Runge has occasionally used the bully pulpit to
champion certain causes, comparing drunk driving to child molestation at a
2001 news conference. But when it comes to rulemaking, the agency and the
Bush administration have taken a softer line. Last month, for example, the
NHTSA proposed raising fuel-economy standards on sport-utility vehicles and
other light trucks by roughly half a mile a gallon each year in the
2005-2007 model years, despite complaints from environmentalists that the
industry could be prodded to go much further.

Major auto makers' reactions were mixed. General Motors Corp. said that head
airbags are a feature the auto maker would like to put in all vehicles but
can't afford to because its competitors don't. "GM would be supportive of
NHTSA in its attempt to determine whether this is a regulatory necessity,"
said GM spokesman Jay Cooney. "If it was, it would level the playing field
for every auto maker."

But Ford Motor Co. opposed the NHTSA's possible intervention. "As a general
rule, we don't believe the way to introduce new technologies is to have it
mandated," said Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio. "We believe it should be
customer driven."

Dr. Runge said that among his top priorities for rule-making are rollover
prevention and crash-compatibility issues. Crash compatibility refers to the
mismatch between tall-riding SUVs and pickups and lower-riding cars. When a
large pickup broadsides a car, for example, the car's occupants are 26 times
as likely to die as the occupants of the pickup. That is more than three
times as high as the rate in car-to-car crashes.

The NHTSA chief said airbags that protect the head are an effective safety
tool in rollover accidents, according to the agency's limited research on
the issue so far. One primary benefit, is that the airbags, which typically
deploy from above the door and hang down to cover at least part of the
window, help keep occupants from getting thrown out of the vehicle, which is
critical to their protection in rollovers. Head airbags, which are also
called side-curtain airbags or roof-rail airbags, are standard on many
luxury cars but are often expensive options on mass-market vehicles, if they
are even available.

Dr. Runge praised the growing number of so-called crossover vehicles that
offer SUV styling and passenger room in a vehicle with a lower center of
gravity and wider stance. "That's going to result in a vehicle that's more
resistant to rollover," he said. "Responsible car companies will do this in
the absence of the federal government. They're already at work."

An administration official familiar with Dr. Runge's thinking said the NHTSA
chief "knows you can never go against market forces. But he thinks more can
be done to educate the public that you have to take extra precautions" when
driving a sport-utility vehicle. "I've never heard him say 'we've got to
regulate this industry tougher,' " the official said. But the official added
that the agency could still propose new regulations. "We're looking at a
variety of things," the official said, adding that Dr. Runge's speech was
approved by senior officials at the Department of Transportation, which
oversees the NHTSA.

Ford offers a head-airbag system, which the company calls a safety canopy,
as standard equipment on just three vehicles -- the Volvo XC 90, and the
Lincoln Navigator and Aviator. As an option, the system costs $650 on the
Ford Expedition and $560 on the Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer. The
safety canopy drops down from the roof, covering the side windows and
staying inflated for up to six seconds in rollover accidents.

Ford also has side airbags that protect both the head and torso available on
most of its vehicles, usually as an option. But Ms. Tatchio, the Ford
spokeswoman, said that very few customers ordered the side airbags as an
option.

GM offers its latest head airbags as standard equipment on just two
vehicles -- the Saturn L series and the Cadillac CTS -- and as an option on
just two more Saturns. Several other vehicles offer combination
head-and-torso airbags. Toyota Motor Corp. sells side-curtain airbags as an
option for $500 on its Sequoia SUV.
GM safety chief Robert Lange said the No. 1 auto maker plans to roll out
head airbags in more vehicles, although this will often be as an option. He
noted that in GM's research, the costs of head airbags "balance well against
the safety benefit."

-- Stephen Power contributed to this article.

Write to Karen Lundegaard at karen.lundegaard@ wsj.com

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