WASHINGTON - Federal regulators said last week they are considering a proposal to place in each new car and light truck a label that would include an overall crashworthiness rating.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it seeks comments in the next three months on that and other safety ideas from a study it commissioned by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences.
Automobile manufacturer groups reacted cautiously, suggesting the goals would be difficult to achieve.
'Easier said than done,' said Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs at the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. 'The Big 3 are not against providing consumer safety information, but they believe it should be meaningful. It has to be relevant to the real world.'
NHTSA already releases the results of its frontal and side-impact tests. Many automakers use them in marketing campaigns.
ROLLOVERS ON AGENDA
George Parker, vice president for engineering at the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said the current individual tests have little relation to real-world crashes. Therefore, the association would question the value of merging questionable components into a combined score, he said.
NHTSA also announced that it will try to develop a test for the propensity of vehicles to flip over without hitting other objects - the so-called untripped rollover that can occur after an emergency maneuver.
At the same time, NHTSA said it has accepted a petition from Consumers Union, an independent testing organization, for a rule to inform motorists of the relative rollover tendencies of sport-utilities.
Federal safety officials have attempted off and on for decades to find scientific ways to measure rollover tendencies.
Only recently did NHTSA staff members determine that advanced technology might make a new attempt worthwhile. But even now, senior agency managers have warned there is no guarantee of success.
David Pittle, vice president and technical director at Consumers Union, lauded NHTSA's decision to address sport-utility rollover risks. He also called the idea of an overall crashworthiness rating viable and valuable.
'We do it at Consumer Reports all the time,' he said, referring to ratings the magazine gives to all kinds of products. TV sets, for example, are tested in a variety of categories and then given an overall score for the purpose of buyer comparison.
Consumers Union, which conducts its own rollover tests, has generated considerable controversy with some of its findings, particularly the rating of 'unacceptable' given to the 1988 Suzuki Samurai and the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper and 1996 Acura SLX.
Suzuki has accused Consumers Union of rigging the tests and has sued for libel, and Isuzu has objected to the tests and results.
NHTSA has yet to rule on another Consumers Union petition for a defect investigation of the Trooper and SLX.