Senate safety catch

April 22, 2005

THE NATION'S highways are as dangerous as ever. An estimated 42,800 people died on the road last year, up slightly from the 42,643 in 2003, according to a preliminary accounting released yesterday. The numbers suggest some troubling trends: SUV rollover fatalities rose 6.9 percent, and large truck crashes and motorcycle accidents are killing more people, too.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta yesterday reacted to the news by urging motorists to wear seatbelts. While helpful (a majority of the people killed in crashes aren't wearing them), warnings simply aren't enough. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been slow to issue rules requiring manufacturers to build safer cars and trucks.

Specifically, NHTSA needs to address the alarming rise in SUV rollovers. Rollovers now account for about a third of all passenger fatalities. The problem could be greatly reduced if more vehicles were equipped with stability controls and better door locks to prevent occupant ejection. Stronger roofs and standardized side-impact protections would help, too.

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee added just such safety provisions to the $284 billion highway and transit bill pending in Congress. Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska and Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii deserve credit for pushing the safety issue despite opposition from the auto industry and Bush administration. Now, it's up to the full Senate to approve the bill - and insist the House adopt these reasonable standards.

NHTSA's failure to act means Congress must intervene. Most of the technology involved (such as shatter-proof side windows) isn't new; it's already available on many luxury cars. Everyone deserves such protections, but that probably won't happen in the next half-decade or longer unless the federal government holds the industry accountable.

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