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Jeep Liberty Results Raise Questions About Accident Tests

by Rick Popely, Chicago Tribune
After Consumer Reports nearly rolls a sport-utility vehicle in an accident avoidance test, the magazine labels the vehicle unsafe and urges its readers to buy something else. When AutoWeek magazine rolls an SUV in a slalom test, causing slight injuries to the driver, the weekly publication reminds its readers that sport-utilities shouldn't be driven as aggressively as cars. The conclusions and the missions of the two magazines could hardly be more different, with one the guardian of consumer interests, the other aimed at car enthusiasts and racing fans. The result, however, is the same: Vehicle manufacturers claim the tests do not represent real-world safety, and consumers again are left to wonder how the vehicles would perform in their hands.

In its June 2001 issue, Consumer Reports said a 2001 Mitsubishi Montero would have rolled over in an accident-avoidance test that simulates rapid lane changes if it had not been equipped with aluminum outriggers. AutoWeek, in its Nov. 26 2001 issue, reports that a 2002 Jeep Liberty Sport rolled over at the end of a slalom test in which a driver steers through cones at the highest possible speed.

The Liberty was traveling about 40 mph when it did one complete roll, possibly two, and landed on its wheels with damage to most body panels. Test driver Pete Albrecht suffered cuts to his hands and a sore neck.

AutoWeek has conducted this test since 1992 on "hundreds of vehicles and several dozen SUVs," executive editor Kevin Wilson said, and the Liberty is the first to roll over. "The test is not designed to measure for safety or rollovers. It's our seat-of-the-pants handling evaluation," Wilson said. In addition to clocking a vehicle's speed, the slalom test also measures steering response, balance and weight transfer.

Jeep spokesman Rick Deneau maintains the Liberty is safe on- and off-road and said it has performed well in simulated accident avoidance maneuvers, such as a double lane change. "AutoWeek's test is a slalom to measure speed, and bears little or no resemblance to avoidance maneuvers," Deneau said.

Wilson acknowledges that AutoWeek's test, in which the driver weaves around eight cones spaced 70 feet apart, does not represent a real-world driving situation. "An ordinary driver is not likely to make seven lane changes in 500 feet," he said. But Wilson said it reinforces the notion that SUVs handle differently than cars because they are taller and have a higher center of gravity, which is why the federal government requires manufacturers to post warning labels in all SUVs. "People drive them instead of cars, and they disregard the warning label that is on the sun visor of every SUV," Wilson said, pointing out that the warning label shows a vehicle tipped onto two wheels. "We thought this was a good opportunity to tell people not to drive these vehicles like cars."

Unlike Consumer Reports, AutoWeek makes no recommendations on whether readers should avoid the Liberty or whether Jeep should modify the vehicle to improve its handling ability. Consumer Reports has not tested the Liberty, and AutoWeek has not tested the Montero.

"We're not in the business of engineering cars. We're not Consumer Reports, and we don't put a big red 'not acceptable' label on a vehicle," Wilson said. "We test the cars, and we report what happened. We give our readers the information, and they behave accordingly."

Deneau said an accident reconstruction expert hired by Jeep concluded that Albrecht, the test driver, continued the test run after the Liberty lifted two of its wheels and accelerated toward the finish. Without blaming the rollover on driver error, Deneau said, Albrecht should have ended the run when the Liberty tipped onto two wheels. "At that point, you should lift off (the accelerator) and end the run. We certainly would not be trying to go faster," Deneau said. "Arguably, it could have been avoided if they had pulled out of the run."

Wilson said Albrecht doesn't remember what happened after he cleared the seventh of eight cones, except he thought he "had the run in the bag." "We're not pointing the finger at Jeep in any way," Wilson said. "I think it would be inappropriate for them to point the finger at the driver."

Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


Rethinking SUVs: Bigger isn't necessarily safer

Editorial
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
17-JAN-06 - It appears the safety factor of SUVs was oversold. Even though the monster sport utility vehicles are known gas guzzlers, people widely use them as the family car in the belief that bigger is better when it comes to safety. A new study in the journal Pediatrics dashes that perception in a comparison study with cars.

While the heft of some SUVs may indeed provide more protection in accidents than smaller passenger cars, research shows the protective effect of the big vehicles is actually offset by their propensity to flip over. "Contrary to public perception, SUVs do not provide superior protection to child occupants, compared with passenger cars," concluded the lead author, Dr. Lauren Daly of A.I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.

The child safety researchers based their study on crashes involving 3,922 occupants between newborn and age 15 from March 2000 to the end of 2003, in SUVs or passenger cars that were model year 1998 or newer. The injuries sustained ranged from concussions, fractures and lacerations to critical brain, spinal cord and internal organ damage.

The highest odds of injury occurred among children riding unbelted in SUVs that rolled over. The study found that kids who were not properly restrained in SUVs were 25 times more likely to suffer serious injury in a rollover crash than those in a car seat or safety belt.

And federal traffic statistics cited by the researchers found SUVs are about four times as likely to roll over than passenger cars. Even though federal data says rollovers represent only 3 percent of accidents, they still account for more than a third of annual highway deaths.

"There's no net advantage for kids in SUVs than kids in passenger cars," said Dr. Dennis Durbin, who co-authored the study. "I suspect that will run counter to most peoples' assumptions," said the emergency physician and epidemiologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Automakers say they are making progress in preventing rollovers with the introduction of new safety technologies over the past several model years, and Congress is prodding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to reduce the rate of rollovers through a variety of mandated safety measures.

But the problem of vehicle stability still remains in SUVs based on several factors, from height to width between tires and weight distribution.

Of course, how they're driven affects risk as well. Despite popular belief when it comes to sport utility vehicles, bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to protecting children.

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