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Government Proposes Rollover Standards

Autos: A driving test, long sought by safety advocates, would be part of criteria for ratings starting with 2003 cars.


The federal government on Tuesday proposed long-awaited road test standards for vehicle rollovers in response to a congressional mandate to begin rating 2003 model cars and light trucks using an actual driving test.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's proposal is designed to give consumers a more realistic look at the stability of various vehicles than the present static rating system provides.

NHTSA estimates that almost 275,000 passenger vehicle rollovers occur each year, almost all of them single-vehicle accidents. The agency says that 31,000 serious injuries occur in rollovers each year and almost 10,000 fatalities were reported in rollovers logged in 2000.

Safety advocates have been calling for dynamic stability testing for decades. Such tests became a government requirement after the 2000 Firestone tire recall that involved hundreds of rollover incidents with Ford Explorer SUVs.

"It's better late than never," said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety.

"The first proposal for this kind of test came before NHTSA 30 years ago, but the auto industry has always opposed it and government has always caved in. It took the Explorer-Firestone debacle to get us where we are today."

NHTSA's rollover test proposal calls for using two types of mechanically controlled driving maneuvers to augment the present static five-star rating system. That system has been used for the last two years and is based on a formula that predicts a vehicle's propensity to roll in a single-vehicle accident based on height and width measurements. By using mechanical controls rather than human drivers, NHTSA says, the tests will be more consistent.

NHTSA offers two alternatives for rating vehicles. One would combine scores from the static and dynamic tests into a single rating. The other would add to the present static rating system--five stars for the most stable vehicles, one star for the least stable--with a separate rating for vehicle maneuverability.

Automakers have opposed the static measurement, claiming that it does not take into account suspension and chassis tuning, electronic stability control, tire quality and other factors that can affect stability.

The maneuvers proposed by NHTSA, supported by some automakers and opposed by others, are a "fishhook" turn at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and a "J" turn at speeds of up to 60 mph. The J turn involves one sharp change of direction. The fishhook requires two directional changes in quick succession and is a more demanding test of stability at speed.

Although most new models would be tested, NHTSA would not test every vehicle every year, just as it doesn't do annual crash testing on every make and model.

The auto industry is expected to be divided on the proposal. The Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most major carmakers in the U.S., was unable to make a recommendation to NHTSA because of disagreements among its members, said Scott Schmidt, the trade group's safety regulation manager.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., for instance, both had proposed a fishhook-type maneuver to the agency in early discussion of the test procedures. Nissan Motor Co. opposed the test.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. each proposed placing vehicles in a centrifuge to accurately measure the forces needed to make them lose their footing--a test that NHTSA sources said would be explored as an alternative to the present static test's mathematical formula.

The dynamic test plan, required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation, or TREAD, Act of 2000, is open for public and industry comment for 45 days, after which the agency will prepare a final version.

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