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Dec. 3, 2003

Industry’s Admission of SUV Risks is Long Overdue; Voluntary Safety Program Will Not Ensure Safety

Statement by Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

The automobile industry will announce on Thursday a voluntary program of safety tests they say would lead to increased vehicle compatibility and require that most vehicles, including sport utility vehicles, to be equipped with side-impact air bags by 2009. While we are pleased that the automakers are finally confronting the dangers of SUVs, the voluntary program is a diversionary tactic to stave off meaningful federal regulation and standards that consumers can rely on.

Automakers have known for years that SUVs lead to needless deaths, not only to their occupants in rollovers, but to other vehicle occupants harmed by the larger, more aggressive SUVs. Their estimate that these changes will reduce fatalities among occupants of cars that crash with SUVs by 28 percent is a testament to that. But they want to write protocols on their own terms, behind closed doors. Not only would the protocols be unenforceable, any company could abandon them at any time it chose without telling the public. For the public, this simply is not good enough.

We have been down the road of voluntary industry safety standards before, and it is a road paved with broken promises. General Motors pledged to install air bags in all vehicles by the mid-1970s; Ford, DaimlerChrysler and GM pledged in 2001 to improve fuel economy in their SUVs by 25 percent in 2005; and in 1999, the industry trade group promised to put side-impact air bags in their vehicles. Automakers backed off or fell short of all of those pledges, and there is nothing to suggest this latest promise will be any different.

In fact, their term "standard" is misleading. What the automakers will announce Thursday is merely a voluntary protocol developed in secret.

A federal standard would allow for public participation in its development, with government analysis of the tests and conditions so that everyone with a stake could have a say.

A federal standard would require conformance with specific published tests, informing the public about a vehicle’s safety performance. The automakers’ protocol puts consumers in an information vacuum. The public would have no way of knowing whether a vehicle met the voluntary protocol, or whether the protocol was protective enough.

A federal standard would require all vehicles sold in the United States to be certified for compliance by manufacturers. The automakers’ voluntary protocol would allow them to renege on their own promises because they would not be accountable to regulators or the public.

In announcing this program, automakers are at long last recognizing the devastating harm caused to consumers by their poorly designed SUVs. But if their commitment to safety is so strong, and their dedication to this new program is so sure, why are the companies fighting so hard against a federal standard that the public can help to develop and would merely hold them to their promises?

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