WASHINGTON - The auto industry's popular and profitable light trucks, already the bane of environmental groups, are about to become hot topics for federal safety regulators again.
Top regulator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said he does not want to tell the industry how to design light trucks. But the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says he wants to get the issue of vehicle compatibility back on the agency's 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 told a group of reporters on Wednesday, June 5.
Automotive engineers say the laws of physics limit what they can do to trucks and still have them function as trucks. But they have discussed moving engines back to create more front crush space and lowering frame rails so that they act less like battering rams. Other options involve beefing up the sides of cars.
Runge, while downplaying the likelihood of regulation, said he hopes that by disseminating new information from researchers, the agency can use the marketplace to address compatibility. That is, he wants to encourage manufacturers to make vehicles more compatible and get consumers to use the power of the purse to reward those who do.
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 the issue but made only vague commitments about addressing it.
Asked how he hopes to be more successful, Runge said, "The research has advanced quite a bit over the last few years since Dr. Martinez was here."
He emphasized that he expects more than lip service from the industry as a response.
"We're not really talking about window dressing, just lowering a bumper down so it bumps a car in the right place. 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, as they do on other issues.
She said: "The dilemma is to deliver the features people want and at the same time make (vehicles) as safe as they can be."