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Auto Industry’s Voluntary Safety Program for SUVs is a Ploy to Avoid Real Change

Feb. 14, 2003

Auto Industry’s Voluntary Safety Program for SUVs is a Ploy to Avoid Real Change

Statement by Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

The automobile manufacturers have known for almost 20 years that their SUVs are highly prone to rollover, are not protective of occupants in such crashes, and are very dangerous to occupants of automobiles in two-car crashes, particularly front-to-side-impact crashes. Occupants of other cars are nearly three times as likely to die in crashes with SUVs than with other cars due to this incompatibility.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has spoken out about his concerns with both the incompatibility and aggressiveness of light trucks and SUVs in crashes with automobiles and indicated that he would initiate regulation. He has also expressed concern about rollover propensity and the lack of rollover protection.

In an attempt to avoid the issuance of safety standards, the automobile industry this week has met with and written a letter to Dr. Runge indicating that the companies intend to address the issues of this lack of vehicle compatibility. They indicated that they would research the issue in working groups but gave no deadline for action.

Dr. Runge has welcomed this voluntarily action. However, consumers have seen this game played before. In 1999, the auto manufacturers agreed to design a test for side-impact head protection air bags. Not only did they refuse to let consumers participate in the process, they never followed through to put side-impact head protection air bags in most vehicles. So much for voluntary action.

The problems with industry promises instead of government safety standards are:

  • Consumers are unable to participate in the development of the test for the standard;
  • The public has no independent evaluation of the quality of the proposed tests;
  • The public has no verification that a vehicle actually complies with the industry voluntary test;
  • The industry is under no obligation to ensure that all of its vehicles comply with the voluntary test; and,
  • Consumers are not informed about which vehicles do and do not comply with the voluntary test; there is no sticker on the vehicle at the dealership, for example.

Further, the industry ignores rollover propensity and crash protection despite the fact that 60 percent of the deaths in SUVs are in rollover crashes. If these vehicles are going to be substantially redesigned, they can be made much more fuel efficient, but the industry’s plan makes no mention of such improvements. The reason that fuel economy and safety requirements are both housed in NHTSA is to ensure that there is coordination of these two programs.

These latest industry promises give consumers no assurance that they will in fact be any safer in the future than they are today. As soon as public pressure subsides, they will go back to business as usual. They have done it many times before.


Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.