WASHINGTON - Like consumers, federal safety officials are buying more and more light trucks. Their purpose, however, is to wreck them, not use them.
Of the 63 vehicles that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will crash test in the 1999 model year, 37 are light trucks and 26 are cars. In contrast, NHTSA crashed 48 cars and 22 trucks in the 1998 model year.
One reason for the increased emphasis on pickups, vans and sport-utilities is that 1999 is the first year in which all trucks are required to meet federal side-impact standards. So, it was only fair to begin side-impact crash testing of trucks for consumer information at the same time, said Tim Hurd, an agency spokesman.
Side-impact testing of cars began with the 1997 model year. Frontal crash tests began in 1979.
NHTSA will have about $2.8 mil-lion to spend on the New Car Assessment Program this year, just $44,000 more than last year, said James Hackney, director of crashworthiness standards for the agency.
In the frontal test, a car or truck is run into a barrier at 35 mph. In the side test, a movable deformable barrier is angled at 38.5 mph into the side of a car or truck.
Vehicles get one to five stars for how well they protect crash dummies in each test.
The testing, however, does not address what has been the most vexing question about car and truck safety - compatibility. The results are valid only for comparisons between vehicles with similar weights and do not show what happens when cars and trucks collide with one another.
The agency is continuing separate research into that question.
Meanwhile, crash testing of the 1999 models has begun.
According to a posting on the agency's Web site (www.nhtsa.dot.gov), the Chevrolet Venture, Ford Windstar, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Corolla have been tested, and none has received a rating worse than three stars in any category.