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

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.”