Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are not only held to less-stringent fuel-economy and pollution regulations than cars, they also enjoy far less stringent federal scrutiny when it comes to safety.
“When the safety, fuel-economy and emissions laws were originally passed in the 1960s and '70s, it was unimagined that SUVs and other light trucks would become nearly half of all new vehicles sold,” said Joan B. Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a safety-advocacy group. “Most safety standards and emissions rules are more than 30 years old, and relentless industry lobbying has killed off interim attempts to update them or pass badly needed new ones on rollover or vehicle crash compatibility.”
The gap in safety regulations for SUVs became apparent in the late 1990s, when 271 people died and more than 700 were injured in rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers fitted with defective Firestone tires. In the scandal that followed, nearly 20 million tires were recalled, and Congress passed the 2000 Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act.
The new law required vehicle and equipment manufacturers to promptly report potential safety defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), increased penalties for safety violations and imposed criminal penalties for misleading the government about dangerous defects.
But the new law did not mandate that the government establish minimum rollover standards for SUVs — which safety experts have advocated for years — even though nearly 13,000 people died in SUV rollover accidents between 1994 and 2001, according to Claybrook. Instead, the TREAD law only required that by November 2002 NHTSA begin rating new cars on their propensity to roll over. While the agency already rates vehicles for their rollover propensity in a single-car crash, it has yet to comply with the TREAD Act's requirement to assess vehicles' rollover risks under emergency steering maneuvers in the absence of a crash. NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge recently said the agency would finalize such a test “in the near future.”
But critics say it really doesn't matter, because the propensity ratings will be meaningless without a minimum standard by which to judge them. “Congress should require crash protections that will protect occupants in rollovers,” Claybrook said. “Rollovers are primarily dangerous due to poor vehicle design. Safety belts and seat structures are not made to keep occupants in place during a crash, and vehicle roofs are so flimsy they crush into occupants' heads and spines, inflicting very serious injuries.”
Despite the lack of a federal standard, most automakers voluntarily began taking steps to reduce the rollover tendency of SUVs. They lowered the center of gravity of some models and introduced new “crossover” SUVs — such as the Subaru Forester and the Lexus RX 300. Built on a car chassis and designed to resemble SUVs, crossovers blend the attributes of cars and SUVs and are held to the same safety regulations as cars.
With their higher bumpers and heavier weight, sport-utility vehicles also pose a major safety hazard to lower-riding vehicles. According to NHTSA, although SUVs and other light trucks represent 36 percent of all registered vehicles, they are involved in about half of all fatal two-vehicle crashes with passenger cars. Over 80 percent of the fatalities from such accidents are to occupants of passenger cars. Moreover, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that when an SUV collides with a car, occupant deaths in the car are about 50 percent more likely in side impacts than in frontal impacts.
Automakers have taken steps in recent years to improve their SUVs' safety records and reduce crash incompatibility with passenger cars. Ford, for example, now installs side airbags that protect the head and chest areas of occupants in its Escape and Excursion models. Ford Excursions now include “Blocker Beams” that lower the point of impact with a car in a frontal collision, helping prevent the SUV from riding over the car.
“The automotive industry in general, and Ford in particular, will continue to build vehicles with the utility and safety that our customers require,” said Susan M. Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering.
Nevertheless, Claybrook lists several other safety loopholes enjoyed by SUVs, including:
Side-impact protection: SUVs heavier than 6,000 lbs. are held to a weaker standard than cars.
Roof strength: SUVs over 6,000 lbs. need not meet any crash-protection standard for roof strength.
Child-restraint anchors: Unlike cars, the biggest SUVs (above 8,500 lbs. carrying weight) are not required to provide anchorage systems to accommodate child restraints.
Brake lights: Unlike cars, SUVs are not required to provide a center, high-mounted brake light.
Meanwhile, the Explorer continues to outsell all other SUVs, even though hundreds of lawsuits against both Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone are still pending So far, all cases have been settled before going to a jury, and the U.S. Supreme Court handed the companies a victory in January by refusing to hear a case on whether Explorer owners qualified for class-action status.
But Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone are not out of the woods on the rollover issue. In February, federal prosecutors in southern Illinois subpoenaed documents from both companies in a possible criminal investigation of tire failures.