Automakers pledge to make SUVs safer

Feb. 14, 2003 at 5:24 PM
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DETROIT, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- An industry association of 10 automakers Friday agreed to work together with the federal government to make sport utility vehicles and pickups safer in crashes with smaller cars.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety sent a two-page letter to Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, offering to cooperate to improve SUV and light truck safety.

Brian O'Neill, executive director of the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and AAM President Josephine Cooper, said the manufacturers had a "strong commitment to move forward expeditiously."

"The industry looks forward to working with NHTSA to ensure that government and industry are moving in the same direction on enhancing vehicle-to-vehicle crash compatibility," the letter said.

The alliance and the institute, which is supported by auto insurers, met for two days this week and agreed to form two working groups -- one dealing with frontal crashes and the other side crashes.

"For the North American market, front-to-side crashes where the striking force of the vehicle is a light truck or SUV, represent, a significant compatibility challenge," the letter dated Thursday said. "The group concluded that, for the short-term, a high priority should be further enhancing the protection for occupants inside the vehicles struck in the side."

Differing bumper heights between cars and the larger light trucks and sport utility vehicles, which ride on higher frames, have contributed to the severity of car-truck crashes.

The auto industry is looking at voluntary safety standards that would lower the front ends of SUVs and pickups to they don't sweep over the hoods of cars in frontal or side collisions. Industry critics prefer mandatory government regulations.

"The automobile manufacturers have known for almost 20 years that their SUVs are highly prone to rollover, and 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," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. The consumer advocate is a former NHTSA administrator.

In a Jan. 14 speech to the Automotive News World Congress in Dearborn, Mich., Runge, a former emergency room doctor, criticized SUVs as unsafe because of their increased rollover risk and said he would not let his children drive a sport utility vehicle.

Runge told The New York Times he was "just delighted" by the industry's commitment to address the safety issue.

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