Automakers to Offer Plan to Make S.U.V.'s Safer in Accidents
By DANNY HAKIM
Published: December 2, 2003
DETROIT, Dec. 1 - The auto industry is set to announce a plan on Thursday to redesign vehicles in a way that mitigates the dangers that sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks pose to passenger cars.
The plan will essentially require automakers to make side air bags standard on vehicles by 2009. Those bags are intended to protect the head in a side-impact collision. It will also require changes in sport utilities and pickup trucks to make them less dangerous to the occupants of passenger cars.
"This is a historic voluntary commitment," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbying group that oversaw the joint safety effort.
"You've never had a global organization bringing together automakers on three continents, coupled with the emergence of new safety technology and consumer demand for safety," Mr. Shosteck said. "All these events are coming together at the right time."
But Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said: "It's a necessary first step, but it doesn't solve the problem. There's more work to be done yet."
Under pressure from Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, who runs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers began working earlier this year on a plan to address the dangers that S.U.V.'s and pickups pose to car occupants.
The insurance institute, paid for by car insurers, agreed to join the effort.
In September, a group of industry engineers sent a plan to automakers for their approval, and several companies said then that they supported it. Mr. O'Neill said the group was exploring further design changes beyond those that would be announced.
Mr. Shosteck said the industry was "still ironing out the final details," but added that the deal was so close that a teleconference had been scheduled for Thursday.
The industry's plan for a Thursday announcement was first reported Monday by USA Today.
Mr. Shosteck said "virtually 100 percent of the vehicle market" would be involved in the agreement.
Under the plan, automakers will agree to performance tests that will essentially be impossible for most vehicles to pass unless they have side impact air bags that offer head protection. Just under half of 2004 models offer side air bags, but many are not standard equipment and some offer protection only to the chest area.
Half of new vehicles will undergo the tests by 2007 and all by 2009.
Automakers are also expected to agree to install design changes, by 2009, to make the rail frames of S.U.V.'s and pickups match up better with cars in head-on collisions.
"The requirements we developed for pickups and S.U.V.'s required that their front-end, energy-absorbing structures must significantly overlap the car's bumper zone," Mr. O'Neill said.
Such changes could reduce, by 28 percent, the risk of death for car occupants in head-on collisions with S.U.V.'s or pickups, he added.
Since the late 1970's, light trucks - S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans - have grown from a fifth of light vehicle sales to more than half. While fatality rates in the United States continued to fall over roughly the same period, as technology and design radically improved, the country has slipped to ninth from first among nations ranked by fatality rates adjusted for miles traveled. It trails Australia, Britain and Canada, among others.
The growth of light trucks is seen as one reason for the slowing rate of decline in the traffic fatality rate. Others include the reluctance of many drivers to use seat belts and a rise in drunken driving and speeding.
Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, an activist consumer group founded by Ralph Nader, said a voluntary agreement should not preclude regulation.
"We don't even know that the vehicles actually meet the standards that they set for themselves," Ms. Claybrook said. "And if a company gets into a financial crunch, will they just decide not to do it for one year?"