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Senator McCain to Ask Regulator to Testify on SUV Standards

WASHINGTON January 29, 2003; Dow Jones reported that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain will ask the government's top auto-safety regulator to testify whether new regulations are needed to reduce SUV-related accidents,adding fuel to the debate over the safety of sport-utility vehicles.

Since questioning the safety of sport-utility vehicles in a Jan. 14 speech in Dearborn, Mich., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Jeffrey Runge has kept a low profile. The Bush administration has sought to downplay his comments, saying they didn't amount to a blanket indictment of SUVs.

The planned hearing -- which a McCain aide said would be held sometime in February -- threatens to give critics of SUVs a new platform for attacking the vehicles, despite the surge in those vehicles' popularity in the U.S. during the past decade. The Arizona Republican has clashed with auto makers before over fuel-economy standards and safety regulations, and environmental and religious groups are already blasting large SUVs because they consume more fuel than minivans or cars.

But the most serious challenge is coming from Dr. Runge, who warned in his speech that his agency could require safety improvements if auto makers don't proceed with improvements more quickly. An aide to Dr. Runge, a former emergency-room physician, said last night that the administrator is prepared to testify before Sen. McCain's panel if asked.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based industry group, said her organization views the planned hearing as a chance for Dr. Runge to "clarify" his views on sport-utility vehicles.

Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter Stephen Power contributed to this report