WASHINGTON -- An insurance industry group will take a closer look at SUV safety on Tuesday just weeks after the top U.S. auto regulator warned car companies to build safer SUVs or face possible new regulation.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit auto safety research group funded by insurance companies, will sponsor two days of meetings with engineers from carmakers and other researchers.
They will tackle concerns with light trucks, which include SUVs, minivans and pickups, sharing the road with smaller passenger vehicles, such as compact cars.
The group will focus on interior protections for drivers and passengers and on the severity of crashes between the two vehicle classes.
"We're getting everyone together to see what we think are the principle components of crash incompatibility and what can be done in the short and long term to reduce them," said Brian O'Neill, the insurance institute's president.
"Three things contribute to incompatibility -- weight differences, a tall vehicle colliding with a short vehicle and a stiff vehicle colliding into a soft vehicle," O'Neill said.
According to government figures, there are nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 crashes involving a large pickup and another vehicle. The figure drops to 205 when a large SUV is involved and 151 for a smaller SUV, like a Ford Explorer.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the nation's top auto regulator as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will address the study group Tuesday.
An emergency room physician, Runge shook the industry last month with tough talk on SUV safety. The institute stressed its meeting was scheduled long before his comments.
Runge also will meet with NHTSA working groups this week for updates on this and other safety priorities, which aides said could include recommendations for SUV redesigns.
Another consideration by the safety community is the future of traditional SUVs with increasingly popular and smaller crossover vehicles.
These models offer the look and space of SUVs but are built on car frames. Traditional SUVs are based on heavier pickup construction.
Runge, who will elaborate on his ideas at a Feb. 26 Senate hearing, would not discuss SUV safety with reporters at an auto safety event Monday.
Aides stressed that he has yet to formulate any safety recommendations and would not suggest any in his remarks to the insurance institute group.
"I think he's going to urge that the auto industry address some of these problems quickly," O'Neill said. "If there are things the industry can do on a voluntary basis, that is faster than a rule making."
It can take years for the government to formulate regulations.
"There are really a lot more questions than answers," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the trade group the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "This meeting is to look at issues, what questions they need to ask, and what data they need to explore."
She said manufacturers already have taken important steps.
For instance, Ford has redesigned the 2002 Explorer by lowering its center of gravity and adjusting its frame to the same height as passenger cars. General Motors also made its mid-sized SUVs more stable when it redesigned them in 2001.
Those two manufacturers and Chrysler, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG, also offer side-curtain airbags on some SUVs.