Sport Utility Vehicles Pose a Danger to All

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Yes: Regulators must address rollovers, SUV mismatch in crashes with cars

The Detroit News
Sunday, March 2, 2003
By Ben Kelley

In the world of compassionate conservatism as defined by President George W. Bush, is there room for a regulator who is willing to attack the auto industry for deliberately making and selling unsafe cars?

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the physician who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, may not have meant to provoke this question, but his recent public comments about the dangers of SUVs have done just that. In the process, they have set up a litmus test of the administration's willingness to tolerate even mild expressions of health and safety concern by its appointees when business objects to them.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., also has raised questions about trusting the industry on safety, saying it was slow in accepting some safety advances.

Dr. Runge's thoughts about SUV hazards recently surfaced in newspaper interviews and a speech before a Detroit audience of largely auto industry staffers. Although the speech was little more than a recitation of public data on SUV dangers, the interview comments showed forthright hostility to the popular vehicles -- "I wouldn't let my kid buy a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth," Runge was quoted as saying.

At least by implication, he was critical also of the companies that make and sell SUVs, and industry is responding in kind. A General Motors spokesman attacked Runge's remarks as "unfair to the thousands of men and women who have spent their professional lives making vehicles safer." Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a powerful industry defender, has also criticized Runge's remarks.

Doubtless car company lobbyists are bringing immense pressure on the White House to dump Dr. Runge or at least rein him in, probably with help from the influential congressman from Michigan. The litmus test is whether they'll succeed, and the measure of success will be the extent to which the NHTSA head continues to be outspoken in pushing for overdue vehicle safety progress.

His agency has lagged grievously in two areas. The first is its failure to aggressively, repeatedly alert the public to SUV hazards, such as rollover propensity, roofs that collapse and injure occupants in rollovers, and supersizing that wreaks havoc on smaller vehicles in crashes with SUVs -- hazards that Dr. Runge's Detroit speech addressed in part.

The second is its longstanding reluctance to upgrade standards covering a range of vehicle safety aspects, including air bag and seat belt performance and fuel system improvements to reduce the likelihood of crash fires. In fact, before Runge arrived, the agency actually weakened its air bag requirements, and they have not been restored since.

If Dr. Runge feels daunted by the industry's reaction to his accurate admonitions about SUVs, he can take heart by recalling the performance of another physician who found himself under industry attack. When C. Everett Koop, a conservative, spoke out against the hazards of cigarettes as surgeon general in the business-friendly Reagan administration, shocked tobacco companies lobbied to have him ousted or muzzled.

Koop's response was to speak out even louder -- in effect, to defy the White House to retaliate. It didn't, and Koop became a leader in the fight against the hazards of cigarettes.

This past week, in testimony before Sen. McCain's committee, Runge was a good deal less outspoken on SUV hazards, but he did promise to press for improvements. Can he become the Koop of auto hazard reduction, a tough, outspoken leader whose first commitment, as it must be for a physician, is to human health? How he follows up on his ambiguous testimony at the Senate hearing will provide an answer.

Ben Kelley, a former U.S. Department of Transportation official, is a member of the Center for Auto Safety board and executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston.