Automakers Agree to Voluntary Rules for S.U.V. Safety

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SUV's > Legislation
New York Times
February 14, 2003
By DANNY HAKIM

DETROIT, Feb. 13 - The auto industry, acknowledging that sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks pose serious dangers to cars, has agreed for the first time to cooperate in an effort to do something about it.

In a letter today to the Bush administration's top safety regulator, Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, the industry's main lobbying group said automakers would take steps toward voluntary standards to make cars safer when hit by larger vehicles and to make S.U.V.'s and pickups less dangerous. The plan came out of a private industry conference on the issue earlier this week in Washington.

Industry executives said in interviews that over the next couple of years such standards would probably lead to much broader deployment of air bags, particularly those that emphasize head protection, and possibly reinforcements in car doors. The standards would also probably lead to lowering large S.U.V.'s and pickups so that their front ends are less likely to skip over the hoods of cars or hit passengers' upper bodies in collisions from the side. The industry also said that it would develop tests to measure the role the stiff frames of larger vehicles play in collisions. Some companies - Ford Motor, in particular - have already made a few changes in their vehicles' design to address the problem. But the companies have until now refused to work together to produce significant changes. Critics and independent safety experts worry that voluntary safety standards lack the teeth of federal regulation and say that how much the industry actually does remains to be seen. But they acknowledge that actual change could come sooner through direct industry action than through regulatory reform.

The industry is agreeing to work together voluntarily in part because Dr. Runge, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, warned automakers in private and public comments that the Bush administration considered the dangers posed by S.U.V.'s and pickups a problem and would impose regulations, but preferred voluntary standards.

Dr. Runge's stance followed years of criticism of S.U.V.'s on safety and environmental grounds. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has planned a hearing for later this month on S.U.V. safety.

Last month, a speech at an industry conference by Dr. Runge, a former emergency room physician, outraged some executives when he said he would not let his own children drive a sport utility vehicle that performed poorly in rollover tests. But the relationship has thawed. Some industry executives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they acceded to Dr. Runge's demands because they saw little choice and thought it better to get credit for making the changes.

Automakers said the effort would be the most ambitious voluntary safety initiative by the industry, involving global cooperation and research. "This is probably our largest undertaking yet," said Robert S. Strassburger, vice president for safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry's principal lobbying group. Priya Prasad, Ford's top safety expert, said: "I believe designs will change substantially. It's going to be on a fast track and it's not going to take a few years." He added that two working groups would be formed to come up with some immediate steps "based on what we know today." "We'd like to make a decision in three to four months," he continued.

The changes would appear on the 2005 models, coming next year, at the earliest; the more complicated changes in design could be at least several years away. Dr. Runge said he was "just delighted" by the industry's approach. "They have committed to work on it, not just to meeting, but to work on it."

Dr. Ricardo Martinez, who ran the traffic safety agency for several years during the Clinton administration, said the industry had taken years to address the problem but now faced regulators armed with considerably more data than when he served in the late 1990's.

"Recognition of it as a problem is a great thing - deep insight into the obvious - but there should be a sense of urgency because the vehicles they're designing now come out five years down the road." Other safety advocates said the industry had a poor record of complying with its own voluntary standards. "It is an admittance that there is a problem, which is a step forward," said Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety. "But this voluntary cooperation is not the solution. N.H.T.S.A. needs to step forward with regulation."

Dr. Runge said, "Regulation is an option if necessary, but I've said before that I really prefer the industry to take care of the problem."

For years, industry executives refused even to acknowledge a problem. In a 1997 interview, Alexander Trotman, then chairman and chief executive of Ford, likened a collision between a car and a sport utility to two rocks smashing together; the bigger rock would come out ahead, he said, and little could be done.

But engineers at auto companies have for years been aware of the problem of compatibility, as the study of collisions of different vehicle types is called. And the issue has become more visible as sales of light trucks - a category that includes S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans - have grown from a fifth of the market in 1980 to more than half today.

While fatality rates have been on the decline because of new technologies like air bags, several studies indicate that the increasing number of S.U.V.'s and pickups has led to thousands of extra deaths over the last several years. At the same time, occupants of S.U.V.'s and pickups are more likely to die in crashes over all because of the increased rollover risks of such vehicles. One compatibility problem is side impacts in which the front end of S.U.V.'s or pickups smack the heads of car occupants.

"A lot of times, people die from their head hitting the hood of the striking car, so if you can add some sort of head protection, like a curtain, you can mitigate injuries and fatalities," said Chris Tinto, one of Toyota's top safety experts, who attended this week's conference. He was referring to a type of side air bag that deploys from the roof, acting like an inflatable curtain, and is thought to provide better head protection than air bags deploying from the seat.

This week's conference was paid for by the automobile alliance, but was organized by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by auto insurers. The two groups frequently do not agree on safety matters, but the president of the insurance institute, Brian O'Neill, said his involvement would last only so long as the industry actually made concrete changes. "This issue has been bubbling around for a long time," he said. "The key here is not just to meet." If the effort is not legitimate, he added, "we're pulling out; I'm not going to be part of a charade to facilitate more and more delays."

The industry said it would form two groups, one to come up with actions that can be taken to mitigate the dangers of head-on collisions of different-size vehicles and another to work on side-impact collisions. The most complex issue the industry plans to address will be determining how best to redesign vehicles so the front ends of big S.U.V.'s are less stiff and more forgiving when they strike smaller vehicles, while not affecting the safety of their own occupants. A more immediate and easier task will be improving the side-impact resistance of cars and changing the heights of sport utility vehicles and pickups to make them more compatible with cars. Regulators say that in collisions involving S.U.V.'s or pickups, impact forces are centralized at a point four to eight inches higher than that of cars. Dr. Runge has said he wants to close that gap.

While some automakers, including Ford and Toyota, have already taken steps to do this, there is no data yet on how effective those steps have been. Another critical factor is that automakers have done little to explore how their own vehicles interact with those of other companies. " Volkswagen presented data to show how Volkswagens lined up with Volkswagens," Mr. O'Neill said, adding that the company had taken compatibility into consideration in designing its forthcoming S.U.V. But, he added, "there's no guarantee that Volkswagens will line up with Fords."