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A Regulator Takes Aim at Hazards of S.U.V.'s

DETROIT - 12/22/2004 - MR. JEFFREY RUNGE had seen many cases like Sarah Longstreet's in the 20 years he served as an emergency room physician in Charlotte, N.C. But this one was as tragic as any he remembered: Ms. Longstreet, a 17-year-old on her way to high school, was killed when a 1991 Ford Explorer collided with her Mazda sedan head-on.

The accident occurred just two months before Dr. Runge's departure to Washington to become the Bush administration's top traffic safety official. And it reinforced what has become one of his main missions: addressing the dangers that S.U.V.'s and other trucks pose to occupants of passenger cars.

"The theory that I'm going to protect myself and my family even if it costs other people's lives has been the operative incentive for the design of these vehicles, and that's just wrong," said Dr. Runge, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (known by its abbreviation and pronounced NIT-sa), in a recent interview.

"Not to sound like a politician, but that's not compassionate conservatism."

Now Dr. Runge's agency is reviewing several safety issues involving sport utility vehicles that could have wide-ranging implications for motorists and automakers. Detroit's Big Three, especially, derive a lopsided share of their slim profits from these vehicles.

Intent as he is on attacking the dangers of S.U.V.'s, Dr. Runge is still part of an administration that is not enamored of regulation. Yet he says that if he cannot address this nettlesome problem, his agency has little purpose.

Some automakers have already taken steps to make S.U.V.'s safer, for other drivers and for their own occupants. But to Dr. Runge, there is much more to be done. As head of the traffic safety agency, he has the authority to set vehicle safety standards, though they are reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, whose administrator, John D. Graham, rejected a tire safety proposal in February. Automakers will undoubtedly continue to put up a determined fight if they feel that their cash cows are threatened.

But Dr. Runge's mission is just part of an effort by regulators and insurers to rethink auto safety in a country increasingly dominated by light trucks, the government designation for S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans. Although light trucks now outsell cars ·and account for nearly 40 percent of vehicles on the road, versus 15 percent in 1976, according to R. L. Polk & Company ·auto safety standards still reflect a car-dominated society. Government crash tests, which began in the late 1970's, principally gauge how well vehicles of all kinds fare in collisions with cars.

Next month, a panel assembled by Dr. Runge will suggest measures to address the threat of S.U.V.'s and pickups to passenger cars.

Meanwhile, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a coalition of auto insurers, has started a series of side-impact tests to see how cars and small S.U.V.'s stand up when hit by bigger S.U.V.'s. The first results are expected in April. But the insurers' group concedes that without supplemental testing or standards imposed by the government, their testing could actually lead manufacturers to make small S.U.V.'s bigger and worsen the problem.

What, exactly, is the problem?

There are two related issues, known in the industry as compatibility and aggressivity. The first involves how different vehicles match up in a collision, and the second involves one vehicle's ability to inflict damage on others. S.U.V.'s ride higher off the ground than passenger cars, and their bumpers, engines, frame rails and hoods are higher. This mismatch puts the occupants of cars at a disadvantage because a colliding S.U.V. can skip over many protective features, like the sill of the passenger door.

Big S.U.V.'s are built on stiff steel frames and are more unforgiving than cars in collisions. The results can be seen in statistics. When a light truck hits a car in the side, an occupant of the car is 29 times more likely to die than a person in the truck, Dr. Runge said. When a car hits a light truck in the side, occupants have an even chance of dying.

The industry has started, slowly, to address these issues. The Ford Motor Company, for instance, lowered the frame rails and front bumper of its 2002 Explorer by about two inches so it is closer in height to car bumpers, like that of Ms. Longstreet's Mazda 626. "It improves the situation," said Jim Boland, Ford's manager for advanced safety and regulations. "If you were to line up a Taurus bumper with an Explorer bumper, you would see there is significant overlap there. It would not be a guaranteed override."

Lowering a bumper does not necessarily lower the spot where force is centralized ·a far more important factor, Dr. Runge said.

"They can plot where the maximum force is being delivered," he said, adding that some standard is needed to make cars and light trucks match each other better.

Automakers have hardly been a friend of new regulation, particularly when it might force them to rethink how they make S.U.V.'s.

"Compatibility is an issue the industry has been focusing on for several years now," said Robert S. Strassburger, vice president for safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbying group. "Everybody has activities and countermeasures that they are incorporating into their vehicles. The general philosophy is making sure you're enhancing self-protection. The question from NHTSA's point of view is if there is a need to go beyond self-protection and look at what countermeasures can be taken with respect to the striking vehicles."

Regarding the kind of compatibility standard envisioned by Dr. Runge, Mr. Strassburger added: "We understand that's what NHTSA is looking at. As an industry, I don't know if we are ready to say if that's an appropriate way to proceed."

The traffic safety agency is also seeking ways to make S.U.V.'s and other light trucks safer for their own occupants. It is reviewing existing testing on rollovers and the crashworthiness of roofs.

S.U.V.'s roll over three times as often as cars, because they ride higher off the ground and have a higher center of gravity, counteracting the benefit of being bigger. The safety agency is trying to come up with a more demanding test for rollovers.

Many safety advocates say the government needs to be much more aggressive in updating its crash tests and its minimum performance standards. "These behemoth vehicles have to be redesigned," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, and the former head of the traffic safety agency in the Carter administration. "You need to redesign them to improve fuel economy, reduce aggressivity, make them less likely to roll over and make them more crashworthy when they do.`

To simulate the impact of an S.U.V., the insurers' side-impact test will use a moving barrier that is a full foot higher and 250 pounds heavier than in a similar test performed by the government.

"We've been talking to manufacturers about this program and sharing our developmental test results for close to two years," said Brian O'Neill, the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"It's fair to say virtually all manufacturers have run tests that are similar to our side-impact tests," Mr. O'Neill said, though he added that engineers at two manufacturers told him they could not get the money to make changes until the insurers forced the issue with testing.

But Mr. O'Neill added that insurers' tests could not be as comprehensive a solution as the government could offer. Taken alone, he said, they could have some negative impact because they examine only how individual vehicles stand up to collisions with bigger vehicles. Manufacturers could make their vehicles perform better on the insurers' tests by building them heavier. But heavier vehicles, in turn, could be more harmful to smaller, lighter ones.

"We're looking at it in a different context" from the government, Mr. O'Neill said. "Any time you start pushing self-protection improvements, there is a question whether it makes it worse for people in other vehicles. If you add 500 pounds in one vehicle, what does it do to another?"

That gap in the insurers' test is a crucial area for government action, Ms. Claybrook says. She wants the government to force automakers to design their S.U.V.'s less like tanks and to make them absorb more energy in collisions.

"The S.U.V.'s on the road today," she said, "are needlessly heavy and very aggressive."

What happened to Sarah Longstreet was a textbook case of the S.U.V.'s danger to cars. Ms. Longstreet was a petite redhead who organized Bible clubs and baby-sat. She often teasingly fined her friends for not wearing seat belts, though she was too nice to collect.

On the morning of April 12, 2001, Ms. Longstreet was driving a 1996 Mazda 626 to East Mecklenburg High School, traveling west on a four-lane road. According to the initial report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, an eastbound Ford Explorer, swerving to avoid another car, clipped a school bus and veered into the car driven by Ms. Longstreet, who was traveling to school with three friends.

"This was a clear case of override, where the S.U.V. rode over the hood of the car and killed her instantly," said Dr. Runge, who did not have a chance to treat Ms. Longstreet but does remember her three friends in the hospital asking: "Where is she? Where is she?"

"This case," he added, "crystallized why I was here."

No charges were filed, and Ms. Longstreet's parents decided not to press a civil case. "We felt like the Lord allowed this accident to occur," Marjorie Longstreet, Sarah's mother, said. "We felt that those people involved in the accident were not breaking the law. They were not drunk or on drugs. From what I can understand it was pure carelessness. We all make mistakes on the road."

Dr. Runge, though, said he felt that at least one important part of the accident was preventable, and that he could do something to make such accidents less likely in the future.

"This was an angel who got plucked off the face of the earth," he said. "But to me, this is not an act of God; this is a preventable incident. If the geometry of the S.U.V. had been different, she with her belt and her air bag could have walked away from it."

"If it's not preventable," he added, "why have a NHTSA?"


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