Bill in Congress to Propose Auto-Rollover Rankings
                    October 5, 2000

                    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.

                                          Rating Rollovers

                    The federal government is considering two ways to rate a vehicle's
                    propensity to roll over.

                    Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

                    On-Road Testing

                         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

                    Mathematical Formula

                         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 an
                    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