U.S. assesses 68 vehicles on risk of rolling over

Safety board for first time gives figures based on test

August 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

For the first time, federal regulators released figures yesterday that show how prone individual models of new cars and light-duty trucks are to roll over in an accident, exposing the occupants to high risk of death or serious injury.

Instead of assigning a star rating to each model it tests, as it has done in the past, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released figures that allow consumers to compare rollover risk model by model.

The star system, which is continuing, has been criticized for not providing enough information to distinguish among different vehicles, because nearly all received either three or four stars.

Of the 68 new models that the agency tested for the 2004 model year, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, a cross between a pickup and an SUV, was found to have the highest rollover risk. The agency's tests indicated a 35 percent chance of rolling over during a single-vehicle accident.

That is more than four times the risk of the best performer in this year's tests, a four-door Mazda RX-8 sedan, which was about 8 percent, the agency said. Mazda is an affiliate of the Ford Motor Co., which makes the Explorer.

As expected, cars performed much better than SUVs or pickup trucks in the tests, because cars are not as tall and generally ride closer to the ground, making them more stable. But the new ratings also show wide differences among vehicles of the same type.

For instance, versions of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, made by General Motors, were judged to have a 16 percent to 18.5 percent risk of rollover, while one version of the Toyota Tacoma pickup was rated as high as 28.3 percent.

"This is a problem that continues to produce about a third of our occupant fatalities every year, even though they are less than 3 percent of our crashes," Jeffrey W. Runge, the administrator of the traffic safety agency, said of rollovers. The new rankings information, he said, "does arm the consumer with a little more sophisticated information."

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, "It's difficult to rate an automobile like you rate a movie. "This is just one rating," she added. "We urge people to look at all information and make a judgment, including the front impact and the side impact ratings."

The new rollover rankings, along with front and side impact test ratings, are available at www.safercar.gov.

The agency also reported that the Ford Escape SUV, and by inference its near-twin, the Mazda Tribute, tipped up on two wheels during a rollover test. Those vehicles were found to have rollover risks of 21 percent to 24 percent.

Kristin Kinley, a spokeswoman for Ford, said, "While we believe the NHTSA rating system has some value, we don't think it's the most effective indicator of how vehicles perform in the real world."

Consumer groups have said the agency needs to do more to get the ratings to the public.

"We compliment the agency on improving its presentation," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. But "significant flaws remain," she said, noting that the information was still not very easy to find. She said the agency should also establish a minimum performance threshold for rollover risk.

While the Explorer Sport Trac was the worst performer overall, the 2004 Subaru Outback wagon was the worst performer among passenger cars, a category that includes sedans and station wagons, with a 15.5 percent rollover risk.

Other vehicles that combine aspects of wagons and SUVs, like the Nissan Murano, performed similarly, though some were counted as light-duty trucks; one, the Chrysler Pacifica, was ranked as the best performer in the SUV group with a 13 percent to 14 percent risk.

Rollover accidents, which kill more than 10,000 Americans a year, have become a major traffic safety issue in recent years because of the popularity of sport utility vehicles and large pickup trucks.

While the high ground clearance of light-duty trucks can make drivers feel more in control, it also raises the vehicle's center of gravity, making the trucks easier to tip.

Subaru, for instance, redesigned the Outback for the 2005 model year, raising its ground clearance and making other changes, allowing it to qualify for the lower truck standard. A Subaru official said yesterday that the company expects the 2005 Outback to do better in rollover tests than the 2004 model, despite being taller, because other dimensions have also been changed.

The four minivans tested by the agency were found to have rollover risks of 12 percent to 16 percent, at the high end of the car ratings but lower than most light-duty trucks. Several SUVs. were rated above 25 percent, including the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and some versions of the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer.

The rollover tests began this year at the direction of Congress, which ordered the agency to develop a track test after a series of fatal rollover crashes in the late 1990s.

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