DAILY EDITION: Oct. 8, 2003

October 7, 2003


NHTSA Establishes New Rollover Test

Federal safety regulators Tuesday announced a new test designed to better measure how likely cars, trucks, and sport-utility vehicles are to roll over during emergency driving conditions. But the new test is primarily directed at SUVs amidst a debate between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and safety advocates on one side and the auto industry and SUV lovers on the other, over whether SUVs that have displaced passenger cars in about one-quarter of U.S. households are more dangerous than cars.

The NHTSA, starting this month, will test vehicles for rollover risk based on how they do in a “real world” test, driving between 35 and 50 miles per hour in a straight line, turning and then turning abruptly in the opposite direction to mimic how a typical driver acts before most rollover accidents. It is referred to as the “fish hook” test, named after the shape of the vehicle’s test. The first batch of ratings will be announced by January.

Until now, the agency rated rollover risk according to a star-system based simply on a mathematical formula, called the ‘Static Stability Test,’ based on the vehicle’s size, weight, and center of gravity. Pickup trucks and SUVs rate worse than cars because of their especially high center of gravity. The star-ratings for 2004 vehicles will now be based on a combination of the static test and the new ‘real world’ results.

Congress ordered the new test in the 2000 TREAD Act, made law as millions of Firestone tires were being recalled and blamed in part for causing at least 271 deaths in rollover accidents with Ford Explorers.

Automakers have long complained that the static test didn’t accurately measure rollover risk, failing to consider suspension improvements, tire sizes, and stability control systems. NHTSA administrator Jeffrey Runge defended the accuracy of the static tests in predicting rollover risk, but said the new system will “better inform consumers about the risks of rollovers in certain vehicles.”

In 2002, 10,666 people were killed in rollover crashes, up five percent from 2001. While rollover crashes only accounted for 2.5 percent of all crashes, 22 percent of fatal crashes involve a rollover. While just 23 percent of fatal crashes in a passenger car results from a rollover, 61 percent of fatal crashes in an SUV is from a rollover.

Defenders of SUVs, which have been targeted by advocacy groups for poor fuel economy, rollover risk and threatening owners of small cars in accidents, say they do not oppose the new NHTSA test, but say statistics that demonize SUVs are misleading. “Real-world crash data shows 97.5 percent are front, rear and side collisions, and in such crashes, SUVs are much safer than passenger cars,” says SUV Owners of America president Jason Vines.

Too, automakers are increasingly offering “stability control” systems, which combine brakes and steering systems to stabilize a vehicle in an emergency driving event, as options or standard equipment. NHTSA demonstrated its new test on a 2000 Toyota 4Runner without a stability system, showing the SUV would have rolled over going just 35 miles per hour. The redesigned 2003 4Runner — wider and longer than the old model and with a stability system — kept all four wheels on the ground up to 50 miles per hour. Toyota spokesman John Hanson said the 2000 4Runner was based on “1990 technology, and we have not only made huge improvements but stability control is standard on all our SUVs.”

“The Toyotas we used today show the market is already responding to the need, and the new ratings will prompt more automakers to design safer vehicles and make stability systems standard,” said Runge. Edmunds.com says of 419 SUVs offered in 2004, 75 percent still don’t offer a stability control system, while 11 percent offer it standard and 14 percent offer it as an option. —Jim Burt

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