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Voluntary steps urged for SUV safety

Report says SUVs pose danger to cars

A motorist examines an overturned SUV that ran off the Massachusetts Turnpike Monday afternoon.
A motorist examines an overturned SUV that ran off the Massachusetts Turnpike.

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As the Congress prepares to hold a hearing on SUV safety, CNN's Julie Vallese shows the industry's and its critics' take. CNN's Julie Vallese reports (February 26)
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The top U.S. auto safety regulator said on Wednesday he would let carmakers voluntarily improve the safety of sport utility vehicles but left open the option of forcing them to make changes if necessary.

Jeffrey Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a congressional hearing the industry can move more swiftly than government on safety improvements.

"I bet they get there before we get there," Runge, a former emergency room physician, said of separate efforts under way by his agency and the industry to reduce the risks of rollover and other hazards of the bigger, more powerful SUVs sharing the road with smaller passenger cars.

"We will be moving in parallel and we will be watching them closely. Hopefully it can be done without huge regulation," Runge told the Senate Commerce Committee.

A decade-long love affair

Declaring he would not let members of his family drive some SUV models, Runge nevertheless said some sport utility vehicles are as safe as passenger cars. He did not say which ones were off limits in his family.

America's love affair with SUVs, which began in the early 1990s, has cooled in the past three years with flat sales and the emergence of smaller, more car-like SUVs, often referred to as crossover vehicles.

Besides safety concerns, gas-guzzling big SUVs have been criticized for contributing to the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

The industry has recently acknowledged sport utility vehicle safety concerns as federal regulators and Congress have sharpened their focus on the issue.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said auto companies agree with government figures showing the fatality rate in rollovers is three times greater for those in SUVs than for those in cars.

Enhanced restraints considered

There are 22 million SUVs on U.S. roads, about 10 percent of the total number of vehicles.

They are looking at remedies like enhanced head restraint systems to reduce deaths and injuries. Some carmakers, including Ford Motor Co., the world's second largest, have made design changes to reduce the risk of SUV rollover.

Auto makers have also promised to work together to reduce fatalities and injuries resulting from weight and size differences of SUVs and passenger cars. Some longer term improvements could involve design changes in one or both classes of vehicles.

An analysis of government data by an insurance industry group that covered all accidents, not just rollovers, showed that SUV fatality rates have fallen sharply in recent years and are now almost even with passenger cars.

But the analysis also showed that because of their size and stiffness, sport utility vehicles can cause considerable damage to smaller passenger cars in certain crashes.

"SUVs inflict more harm on occupants than other cars do," said Brian O'Neill, president of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Fighting back

The auto industry defended SUV safety.

"SUVs are twice as protective of their occupants than any other passenger vehicle in frontal, side and rear-impact crashes, which make up 97 percent of all crashes," Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president of safety, told Senate lawmakers.

Some critics complain the industry is ceding some ground now to ease pressure for new regulation and that voluntary design changes could take several years.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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