Join Date: Aug 2002
From the NY Times:
Regulators Seek Ways to Make S.U.V.'s Safer
By DANNY HAKIM
ETROIT, Jan. 29 — Federal auto regulators, worried about the dangers posed by sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, may propose new safety standards that would force substantial design and equipment changes in passenger vehicles, according to officials involved in the matter.
Proposals under consideration by a working group at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would require many sport utilities and pickups to be redesigned to make them less likely to plow over the hoods and door sills of cars in collisions. In addition, a new side-impact test could force automakers to equip more vehicles with side curtain airbags or the sausagelike side airbags used by BMW.
The initiative, which would have to survive several levels of review within the Bush administration before taking effect, is likely to be viewed warily by the auto industry as a costly attack on its most profitable products. Earlier this month, executives criticized Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the former emergency room physician who heads the traffic safety agency, when he raised questions about the safety of sport utility vehicles.
Dr. Runge, who declined today to comment on the initiative, has said previously that he would prefer that the industry voluntarily adopt tougher safety standards. But he has been firm in stating his concerns about sport utility vehicles and pickups. In an interview last month, he said, "The theory that I'm going to protect myself and my family even if it costs other people's lives has been the operative incentive for the design of these vehicles, and that's just wrong."
The industry could be amenable to compromise. Next month, major automakers are convening a meeting in Washington to discuss what they call compatibility — the ways vehicles interact in collisions. Dr. Runge is scheduled to speak at the meeting.
The agency's proposals were disclosed by senior officials who want to see them carried out. The standards being considered by the safety agency would also force some small cars to be redesigned so they stand up better in collisions with larger vehicles. The cost to automakers and consumers of the proposals has not yet been determined, but that will be part of the government's review process.
The proposals are meant to address a central problem with sport utility vehicles and pickups. When such vehicles hit a car from the side, an occupant of the car has 29 times the chance of dying of a person in the sport utility vehicle or truck, Dr. Runge has said. When a car hits a light truck from the side, occupants of both vehicles have an even chance of dying.
New data from the traffic safety agency further illustrates the problem. For every 100,000 crashes involving a large pickup truck and another vehicle, there are 293 deaths in the other vehicle. For S.U.V.'s there are 205 deaths in the other vehicle.
By comparison, there are only 104 such deaths in the second vehicle when it is in a collision with a minivan; they are designed more like cars and ride lower to the ground than most S.U.V.'s and pickups. The number falls to 77 when a midsize car collides with another vehicle.
Sport utility vehicles and pickups are also more dangerous for their own occupants, recent data from the traffic agency shows, because of their increased risk of rollovers.
Besides concerns about the added costs of any changes mandated by the government, automakers are unhappy that a top Bush administration official is willing to take on the topic of sport utility safety. The highly profitable vehicles continue to gain market share from passenger cars and minivans, despite increasingly vocal criticism of them on safety and fuel-consumption grounds.
The proposals are still in an early form. Within a couple of weeks, the working group at the traffic agency is expected to formally present them to Dr. Runge. From his desk, they would go to Norman Y. Mineta, the transportation secretary, for further review before being made public for comment.
Regulators Seek Ways to Make S.U.V.'s Safer
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Any final regulation would be vetted by the Office of Management and Budget, which rejected a tire safety proposal from Dr. Runge's agency last year. It often takes years before such rules are carried out.
Compatibility issues are at the core of the proposals.
Regulators say that with current vehicle designs, the impact from a collision involving a S.U.V. or pickup is centralized at a point four to eight inches higher than that of cars. The traffic safety agency wants to close that gap. That could involve lowering the profile of the biggest sport utility vehicles, and raising that of the smallest sports cars, for example.
Additionally, the agency is considering a new requirement that would force automakers to design their vehicles to distribute force over wide areas in collisions. Now, vehicles often act like lances in a crash, puncturing one another and thereby adding to the risk for occupants. Possible design solutions range from making vehicle frames less stiff to adding steel beams between a vehicle's front bumper and the road.
The Ford Motor Company has already made the sort of changes to a few of its vehicles that the proposals are aimed at prompting. Newer versions of the company's big Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition sport utility vehicles, for instance, have a lower profile, so the frame rails ride within an inch of those on the Ford Taurus sedan.
Because the changes were made as part of a long-planned redesign, the costs were not prohibitive, Ford officials say.
"It doesn't cost too much if it's a new platform," said Priya Prasad, Ford's senior technical fellow for safety. "If you have to redesign something, its expensive."
But he added that a dispersion-of-force requirement would be considerably more complex.
"The obstacle is a complete change in the vehicle architecture," he said. "If you want to shift it so that less is absorbed in the rails and more in the upper body structure and the front end, that causes other issues," he said — affecting, for example, how doors open and windshields collapse after collisions.
As part of its initiative, the traffic safety agency is considering requiring vehicles to pass a new kind of test that would run a pole — similar to a utility pole — against their sides to simulate a wide range of single vehicle and two-vehicle side-impact collisions.
Safety experts have criticized the existing test, in which a flat barrier is rammed against cars, because it fails to take into account the height of S.U.V.'s and pickups in two-vehicle crashes.
Some safety experts say they believe that the traffic agency should go even further. Brian O'Neill, the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by auto insurers, said that the pole test would not give much insight into collisions involving large vehicles. The insurance institute prefers a new side-impact test it has developed that uses a barrier placed a foot higher than in the government's current side-impact test.
"What N.H.T.S.A.'s talking about makes sense," said Mr. O'Neill, "but it's far from a comprehensive answer to the problems."