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Published: Wednesday, 2/5/2003

Steadfast on SUVs

They're unsafe, they're gas-guzzlers, and they're the hottest-selling vehicles in the country. What a conundrum for the Bush Administration and its nobody-should-be-denied-an-SUV mentality. How awkward that some of the sharpest criticism of the sport utility vehicles has come from one of its top officials.

The incredibly popular road hogs have been increasingly targeted for protest from everyone from Arianna Huffington to evangelical Christians for their lousy gas mileage. But then the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added more fuel to the fire - so to speak.

Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency room physician, is succinct about the safety claims of SUVs. “ I wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth.” The rollover fatality rate for SUVs, he adds, is triple that for passenger cars.

And woe to occupants of passenger cars involved in mismatched collisions with monster-size SUVs that plow over hoods and door sills in lethal fury. Dr. Runge says in a crash between an SUV or pickup and a car, the occupant of the car has 29 times the chance of dying than the person in the SUV does.

With rollover risks, “incompatibility” dangers - when small cars collide with SUVs - and gross fuel inefficiency, one might think the Bush Administration would be cornered. But aggressively promoting energy conservation and crusading for safer SUVs are pie-in-the-sky proposals for an administration that takes its cue from automakers.

Dr. Runge's safety agency is on the right track with the wrong administration. Federal auto regulators are reportedly weighing safety proposals with cost estimates that will require SUVs and large pickups to be redesigned to lessen the damage in a crash. Requirements are also being debated that would force some small cars to be redesigned to better withstand the impact of SUVs.

But by the time Dr. Runge reviews his staff's recommendations and sends them to Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, who then forwards them to the Office of Management and Budget to be vetted, approved, or rejected, years could pass.

That's probably what the Bush Administration and the auto industry are counting on while both feign interest in better gas mileage and improved odds for occupants in collisions between, say, a Ford Escort and a Chevy Suburban.

Conundrum under control.



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