By JEFFREY BALL
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A battle is set to erupt Thursday in Congress that could decide whether
there is a lasting legacy of the Firestone tire debacle: federal rollover
rankings for vehicles.
Thursday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.) is
expected to propose legislation giving the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
two years to come up with a real-world driving
test that would produce scores ranking cars,
sport-utility vehicles, pickups and minivans for rollover risk. Consumer
Reports, the influential consumer magazine, already does rollover
testing by piloting vehicles through sharp turns, sometimes equipping
tippier models with outriggers, long arms attached to the sides of test
Rep. Markey's proposal comes four months
after the NHTSA proposed a less elaborate
rollover assessment -- a mathematical
calculation that computes a vehicle's rollover
propensity based on its height and width, but
doesn't test the vehicle on the road.
For auto makers, the stakes are huge. A federal
rollover rating system that turns up low scores
for truck-based SUVs could potentially damp consumer ardor for the
industry's cash cows. In the face of industry opposition, the
government has failed for nearly 30 years to decide on a way to grade
vehicles for rollover risk. But the idea is gaining fresh momentum from
the public furor over the Firestone recall, which involves tires that
shredded on SUVs, primarily Ford Explorers, causing them to roll over
and reportedly kill more than 140 people in the U.S. and Venezuela.
NHTSA officials, while conceding the limitations of their current
approach, say that it's good enough to be used to warn consumers
about the dangers of SUVs and pickups. "Even though we cannot
justify prohibiting the manufacture and sale of these vehicles," the
agency said in a public document explaining its proposal, it decided to
use the measurement to let consumers "make fully informed choices
when selecting a new vehicle."
People involved in the issue say that Rep. Markey's legislation has a
good chance of passing and that the NHTSA will be allowed to start
publicizing its rollover rating system at least until the agency comes up
with an on-road rollover test.
The federal government is considering two ways to rate a vehicle's
propensity to roll over.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Tested on a track, moving at highway speeds
Attempts several maneuvers, likere-entering the road from the
Scored on frequency of two wheels lifting off the road
Measures a still vehicle's dimensions
Calculates its center of gravity
Assigns stars based on its likelihoodto tip
But as Congress, fueled by the Firestone fiasco, scrambles to pass a fix
to assuage heightened public fears about SUV rollovers, a complex
behind-the-scenes fight is being waged among auto officials, safety
advocates and NHTSA officials. The issue: Which test is best?
The auto industry and safety advocates both argue that the NHTSA's
proposal to compute a vehicle's rollover propensity on paper will give
consumers a skewed picture of which vehicles are dangerous. The
NHTSA system gives most SUVs fewer stars than, say, most sports
cars, because SUVs have higher centers of gravity and thus are more
likely to roll over than the average convertible. But, both the industry
and safety advocates point out, that measurement ignores important
differences among SUV models, such as which ones have electronic
stability-control systems designed to prevent a rollover in an accident.
"All other things being equal, there is a greater risk of rollover" in
SUV than in a sports car, says Adrian Lund, senior vice president for
research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group funded
by insurers. "The problem is, all other things aren't equal. This gives no
recognition to manufacturers that may have done things to
compensate" for their vehicles' high center of gravity.
Moreover, say foes of the proposed NHTSA measurement, the star
rating often is a poor predictor of a vehicle's likelihood to cause rollover
deaths in the real world. Although a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer gets
just two stars and a Chevrolet Camaro sports car gets five in the
NHTSA's rollover measurement, the Explorer has less than half the
real-world rollover death rate of the Camaro, according to the insurance
institute. The reason: Sports cars tend to be pushed beyond their
safety limits more often than SUVs are, in part because their drivers are
younger and more often male.
The NHTSA previously rejected the rollover measurement it's now
proposing for essentially these same reasons. In 1987, after a
congressman asked the agency to use such a measurement as the
basis for a rollover standard that auto companies would be required to
meet, the agency refused. It argued that though the measure can
assess how likely a vehicle is to roll over if it's in an accident, it doesn't
address how likely a vehicle is to get into an accident in the first place.
Later, in 1994, the NHTSA rejected another request to come up with a
rollover standard, saying that any such standard would effectively
outlaw SUVs and pickups -- vehicles that consumers clearly wanted,
judging by their surging popularity.
But a person familiar with the NHTSA's thinking on the issue says that
recent testing by the agency has shown the paper rollover measure to
be a better predictor of real-world rollover crashes than the on-road
tests used for years by auto companies themselves and by safety
groups such as Consumers Union. The problem with those on-road
tests is that they assess a vehicle's likelihood to roll over primarily when
a driver swerves to avoid an obstacle -- a situation that represents only
about 4% of U.S. rollover crashes, which kill about 10,000 people each
year. "Having something that represents one out of 20 rollovers is not
what we would think is the best way to go about addressing something
that kills over 10,000 people a year," this person says.
But a spokesman for Rep. Markey, who wants the NHTSA to come up
with such an on-road test, says the congressman is undeterred.
Although NHTSA officials "are not sure they can do it," the spokesman
says, the congressman's message is clear: "The auto companies can do
it. Consumers Union can do it. You can do it, too."
Write to Jeffrey Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org