Under Pressure, SUV Makers Promote Safety

WASHINGTON February 25, 2003; John Crawley writing for Reuters reported that the auto industry aggressively promoted the safety of sport utility vehicles on Tuesday as manufacturers braced for fresh criticism from regulators and inquiries from Congress.

Two weeks after publicly promising to do more to improve SUV safety, auto makers rolled out statistics they say indicate the vehicles pose no more of a risk to drivers and passengers than do cars.

"At a minimum, SUVs are as safe as automobiles," said Rob Strassburger, vice president for safety at the auto industry's chief lobbying group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The industry has cited insurance data showing overall fatality rates between passenger cars and SUVs have evened out in recent years. And auto makers claim the safety record of SUVs has surpassed that of cars in the most common kinds of crashes.

They also tout SUV features like anti-lock brakes, stability control systems, and side-impact air bags for improved safety.

Sue Cischke, vice president of safety at Ford Motor Co., said SUVs are under attack for some of their most noteworthy attributes.

"They do well in front crashes, side crashes and rear crashes," Cischke said. "Unfortunately, many people who are killed (especially in rollovers) many times are not wearing safety belts."

SENATE HEARING SET

But the industry has recently acknowledged SUV safety concerns that critics have complained about for years, and federal regulators are beginning to focus on them.

The nation's auto safety chief, Jeffrey Runge, will tell a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday that SUVs do pose safety dangers to their occupants as well as to people in other vehicles.

Runge has been outspoken about higher SUV rollover risks and the danger posed by bigger and stronger SUVs sharing the road with smaller passenger cars.

Aides said he would seek new assurances for swift voluntary action by industry.

There are 22 million SUVs on U.S. roads, about 10 percent of the total number of vehicles.

Brian O'Neill of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said experts did not realize until recently that SUV fatality rates had come down faster than those for cars in recent years.

But he said crash patterns involving the two classes of vehicles are different. For instance, O'Neill said about half of all SUV deaths occur in rollovers, and occupants of passenger cars are worse off when their vehicle is struck in the side by a sport utility vehicle.

"SUVs inflict more harm on occupants than other cars do," O'Neill said.

In the past month, the industry has acknowledged safety shortfalls on those two points.

Strassburger released data on Wednesday showing that auto companies concurred with government statistics showing the fatality rate in rollovers is three times greater for those in SUVs than for car occupants.

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