WASHINGTON -- The automobile industry's popular and profitable light trucks, already the bane of environmental groups, are about to become hot topics for federal safety regulators once again.
Top regulator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said he does not want to try to tell the industry how to design light trucks. But the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did say on Wednesday that he wants to get the issue of vehicle compatibility back on the agency radar screen.
Vehicle compatibility is NHTSA's shorthand for the problems created when bigger, taller, heavier vehicles collide with smaller, lower, lighter vehicles. People in the latter are injured and killed at higher rates.
"For the first time, in the last decade, more occupants have been killed in crashes of light trucks and cars than in crashes with two cars, or multiple cars," Runge said.
Noting that light trucks now account for nearly half of all light vehicle sales, he added, "The need for a look at vehicle compatibility has never been more compelling than it is right now."
Echo from the past
Runge, while downplaying the likelihood of regulation, said he hopes that by releasing this information, the agency can use the marketplace to address compatibility. That is, he wants consumers to use the power of the purse to encourage manufacturers to make vehicles more compatible.
Former NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez tried a similar approach. It peaked in 1998 with plans for an "international summit" on compatibility and the release of research data detailing the threats posed to people in cars struck by trucks. Automakers acknowledged the importance of compatibility but made only vague commitments about how they might respond.
"The research has advanced quite a bit over the last few years since Dr. Martinez was here," said Runge, when asked how he hopes to be more successful.
He emphasized he expects more than lip service from the industry.
"We're not really talking about window dressing, just lowering a bumper down so it bumps a car in the right place," he said. "We're talking about in a crash that matters, in a potentially fatal crash."
Josephine Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said car companies want to work with NHTSA on compatibility.
"The dilemma is to deliver the features people want and at the same time make (vehicles) as safe as they can be," she said.
Runge discussed compatibility at a meeting with reporters, at which he outlined his priorities for his tenure as administrator, a post he's held since last August.
He said other top goals are: