- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency that regulates automobile safety, has published its first ever "Rollover Resistance" ratings. Unsurprisingly, sport-utility vehicles were found to be at higher risk of rolling over than conventional passenger cars. What is surprising is the way these findings have been interpreted.

But the larger issue is that NHTSA's Rollover Resistance ratings paint an unfair portrait of SUV safety implying they are inherently more dangerous than conventional passenger cars. NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey said she "doesn't think people understand how deadly rollovers are." A true statement, perhaps but utterly immaterial as regards the question of SUV safety.

SUVs are by nature specialty vehicles originally intended to meet the needs of a small segment of the marketplace that sought the off-road/towing capability of 4-wheel drive bolted to a rugged, full-frame chassis that sat appreciably higher off the ground than a normal passenger car.

The result is a class of vehicles with different handling characteristics resulting from a higher center of gravity. Driven with appropriate respect for these built-in limitations as in no high-speed driving or hard cornering SUVs are, however, quite safe. If you look into the federal government's Fatal Accident Reporting System, for example, you discover that SUVs actually have a lower accident/ fatality rate per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) than do passenger cars. And an additional benefit is that the generally larger size and mass of an SUV confers an inherent safety advantage, in terms of occupant protection in a crash.

The problem is that SUVs have morphed into mass-market vehicles (they now account for about 50 percent of all new vehicle sales) and are used almost entirely as passenger conveyances by the vast majority of people who buy them. These latter-day SUV drivers often don't understand that an SUV reacts and handles differently than a car and must be driven accordingly.

It is indeed easier to lose control in an SUV during both cornering and abrupt maneuvering, such as swerving to avoid another vehicle. But this does not mean SUVs are "unsafe" it's a function of their being differently designed. Purpose-built sports cars have different dynamics, too. For example, while they generally offer superior dry-road traction, sports cars are a mess in snow and rain much more prone to skidding and loss of control because they are lower to the ground and typically are shod with specialty high performance-type tires designed for maximum dry-weather adhesion. But people understand and allow for these differences; few people, if any entertain the idea of taking a sports car off-road or complain much when it gets stuck in the snow. They are usually driven with appropriate caution in conditions that do not favor their basic design.

A similar consciousness-raising is needed when it comes to SUVs. That's what NHTSA should be worrying about not scaring people with misleading statistical legedermain about SUVs. Remember: An SUV is not a car no matter how well they've been disguised as such by the automakers. Drive one as if it were, and you might just find yourself in a ditch. That is the underlying message contained in NHTSA's Rollover Resistance ratings.

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