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U.S. cites fatal head injuries in 3 SUV crash tests -UPDATE-

NEW YORK, May 2, 2003; Reuters reported that tests on three 2002 sport utility vehicles showed that passengers could have sustained severe or fatal head injuries in side-impact crashes, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

The government agency said in a statement released on Thursday its findings -- which may lead to changes in how new cars are evaluated for safety -- emanated from tests on the Daewoo Nubira, Suzuki Motor Corp.'s Grand Vitara and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport vehicles.

But Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said in a statement that it was "discouraged" by NHTSA's findings because the Montero had met all federal motor vehicle standards.

"As NHTSA is also aware, the (crash test) dummy they used for this testing, while validated for the assessment of chest and pelvic injuries ... has never been validated for measurement of head injury in a side barrier test," the Japanese automaker said.

"Similar testing recently performed by NHTSA on the 2003 Mitsubishi Montero Sport has confirmed 5 star side impact ratings for the front driver and rear passenger and did not result in a higher likelihood of head injury for the rear passenger," Mitsubishi said.

The NHTSA said it intends to embark on a review of the current side impact rating system to determine how to best incorporate head injury information and other relevant criteria in the New Car Assessment Program for consumers.

Head injury data is not currently used to determine a vehicle's star rating for side impact, but the NHTSA said that strides in developing a new crash test dummy has boosted confidence in the accuracy of head injury data.

The agency also said it intends this year to propose an upgrade to its side impact standards. General Motors Corp., the world largest automaker, and partners acquired a majority stake in South Korea's ailing Daewoo Motor Co. last year.

Representatives for Daewoo and Suzuki could not immediately be reached for comment on the NHTSA's findings. (Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb writing for Reuters in Los Angeles)