- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

DETROIT, Jan. 15 (UPI) — The federal auto safety agency is investigating 480,000 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans after an air bag on a 2000-model failed to deploy in a crash that killed the driver.

The driver lost control of the car, which slammed into a concrete bridge rail at 43 miles per hour, and suffered fatal head injuries despite wearing a seat belt. The driver's side air bag did not deploy, a National Highway Transportation Safety Agency spokeswoman said.

Ford said it was cooperating with the NHTSA investigation and had not received any other reports of faulty air bags. "We are confident our systems work," said spokesman Glenn Ray.

Ford sold more than 431,000 Taurus and Sable sedans last year.

NHTSA also has opened an inquiry into 150,000, 2002-model GMC Envoys and Oldsmobile Bravadas after receiving 36 reports of the sport-utility vehicles stalling without warning.

In some cases the engines would not re-start, causing steering and brake systems to fail.

NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge, Tuesday told an auto industry conference in Dearborn, Mich., consumers should think twice before buying a sport-utility vehicle because their rollover rate is three times that of passenger cars.

"Large passenger cars and minivans are the safest way to move around large numbers of people," Runge, a former emergency room physician in North Carolina, told the Automotive News World Congress.

Runge said SUVs are more rollover-prone because of their higher center of gravity. Department of Transportation statistics said 9,882 people were killed in rollover crashes on U.S. roads in 2000 — 8,146 in single-vehicle crashes. Fifty-one percent of all SUV fatalities were linked to rollovers compared to only 19 percent of car deaths.

Nearly a third of the 95 SUVs rated for rollover resistance by NHTSA in 2002 — including the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Chevrolet Tahoe — earned just two-stars or fewer on five-star scale.

"I wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth," Runge said. "My daughter drives a sedan. I drive a large sedan that is over 3,000 pounds. And my wife drives a station wagon."

NHTSA plans to begin a dynamic rollover crash test later this year that will measure track width, electronic stability control, choice of tires, suspension and brakes of a vehicle. The agency's 2001 rollover ratings were based on a mathematical formula using a stationary vehicle's center of gravity and tire track width to determine its propensity to tip over. In the new test, vehicles will be driven on a track to simulate real-world driving conditions.

NHTSA also is expected to propose guidelines for side curtain air bags this year.

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