America's SUV craze seems headed toward more efficient vehicles

But safety, environmental regulations are unlikely

February 03, 2003|By Ricardo A. Zaldivar | Ricardo A. Zaldivar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The bad habits of gas-guzzling, road-hogging sport utility vehicles are a red-hot topic, but consumers bought 4 million of them last year, and the Bush administration is unlikely to impose safety and environmental changes that could kill the market.

America's infatuation with the off-road behemoths that became a suburban creature comfort doesn't seem headed toward a rejection of SUVs - only a desire to tame them by making them less prone to flip over or crush cars in collisions, and somewhat less wasteful of fuel.

The government's top highway safety regulator, emergency room physician Jeffrey Runge, recently sent auto executives into a panic by saying he would never let his kids drive some SUV models that are more likely to roll over.

But Runge also noted that he would rather the industry tackle the safety issues than try to solve them by federal fiat.

"We cannot regulate fast enough to keep up with technological innovations, nor would we want to," Runge said in a speech last month in Detroit.

Runge's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is completing a rating system that will tell consumers how likely SUVs are to roll over in emergency maneuvers. The agency also is exploring new safety standards to reduce injury when SUVs and pickups slam into the sides of cars, but officials say it is unclear whether a regulation will follow. The process could take five years or more.

The marketplace might get there faster. The evidence is in showrooms. A couple of years ago, tanks such as the Ford Excursion epitomized the SUV craze. Smaller, carlike "cross-utility" vehicles such as the Honda Pilot are now the rage.

"I think that we are going to see more of what are called crossover designs - SUVs that are less trucklike," said Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a longtime critic of SUV safety flaws.

Consumers bought nearly 3 million traditional SUVs last year, and the Ford Explorer remained the best-selling model of any size. But while demand for bigger SUVs remained flat, sales of smaller cross-utility vehicles surged by 23 percent, to more than 1.2 million, according to WardsAuto.com, a leading source of industry statistics.

A Harris Interactive poll released last week captures the mood of consumers. While 82 percent reject columnist Arianna Huffington's contention that SUV owners indirectly support terrorism by hogging fuel, 70 percent believe Congress should require SUVs to get better mileage.

With war looming in the Middle East and with it the likelihood of higher gas prices, the debate could intensify.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has introduced a bill to require SUVs to get the same average gas mileage as cars by 2011. Automakers are required to achieve an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for their passenger cars but only 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks, including SUVs. The Bush administration has required a modest increase of 1.5 miles per gallon by 2007.

SUV owners and car drivers have no quarrel that SUVs should get better mileage, polls show. But when it comes to SUV safety, motorists divide sharply between those who drive SUVs and those who don't. Misconceptions abound on both sides.

For example, many car drivers believe the best thing for safety would be to ban SUVs. Statistics show they are wrong.

Banning the biggest SUVs and pickups would save about 160 lives a year, but outlawing the littlest cars would prevent about 700 deaths, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute, an auto safety think tank. That is because small cars have less steel and structure to protect occupants.

Ricardo A. Zaldivar is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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