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Government’s Top Auto Safety Regulator Speaks Truth About SUV Dangers; It’s Time for Action

Jan. 15, 2003  
Government’s Top Auto Safety Regulator Speaks Truth About SUV Dangers; It’s Time for Action
Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
 In a speech delivered at an auto industry conference in Detroit on Tuesday, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), spoke with refreshing honesty about the dangers of sport utility vehicles.  As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, Dr. Runge warned automakers that if they don’t make SUVs safer, the government could step in and require safety improvements.
 It’s about time. But NHTSA’s bite should be as strong as Dr. Runge’s bark.  While they market these killer vehicles as safe for families, automakers have known for over 15 years that SUVs are particularly dangerous, both to SUV occupants and to passengers of other vehicles. Most automakers have failed to act, so the government must step in and mandate changes that will save thousands of lives and prevent crippling injuries.
 SUVs roll over because of their higher center of gravity, and SUV occupants are three times more likely to die in a rollover crash than occupants of passenger cars.  NHTSA is currently developing standards, mandated by Congress in 2000 following the Ford/Firestone debacle, that will provide consumers with information, by make and model, about the propensity of SUVs to roll over.  This is a good start, but more is needed.  NHTSA should issue a minimum rollover prevention standard.
 NHTSA should also require safety changes to improve crashworthiness and protect occupants when these vehicles do roll over.  The agency is considering a new standard to prevent deaths and injuries due to flimsy roofs that are crushed in rollovers. NHTSA should live up to Dr. Runge’s tough words and issue this rule. Other measures mentioned by Dr. Runge include side air bags designed to protect the head, which the Detroit automakers said they would install voluntarily but have pulled back from doing.
 Dr. Runge also spoke of reducing the danger to other motorists by making SUVs more compatible with passenger cars and less aggressive. This is imperative, because with their rigid frame and high bumper, SUVs are like urban tanks that maim and kill occupants of other vehicles who are unlucky enough to be broadsided by them. 
 Implementing these measures now is essential. This SUV safety overhaul should include weight reduction and technologies to vastly improve fuel economy. The automobile companies have repeatedly shown, by resisting virtually every new safety innovation, that they will not design safe SUVs without minimum government standards. There is far too much preventable carnage on the highways. It’s time to act.
Note: Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook was administration of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.