WASHINGTON -- Automakers, launching a pre-emptive strike Tuesday, say that their much-maligned SUVs are at least as safe for their drivers and passengers as cars.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says that newly analyzed 2001 data show that for every 1 million registered vehicles, 1 to 3 years old, there were 115 deaths in SUVs and 124 in passenger cars. The number for pickups was 170. The analysis counts minivans as cars.
Since 1981 the figures are down significantly for all vehicle classes, but the drop for SUVs was the largest of all.
In the most common kinds of crashes front, rear or side impacts SUVs are considerably safer than cars, says alliance Vice President Robert Strassburger.
Yes, there are more rollover deaths in SUVs than in other kinds of vehicles, but such crashes are rare, he adds.
The flurry of data was meant to prepare reporters and the public for an important hearing Wednesday of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The hearing was called after Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, presented some data of his own at the Automotive News World Congress in January.
Mainly, he attempted to show that pickups and SUVs pose disproportionately large threats to their own occupants in rollover crashes and to other vehicle occupants in truck-car collisions.
But more damning were some of Runges subsequent personal remarks, which were sharply critical of light trucks.
The committee is expected to ask Runge to clarify his position. Panel members also will hear from industry executives and from safety advocates.
Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen, says she will call on Congress to enact tougher safety requirements for SUVs and will warn against letting the industry adopt voluntary standards.
Automakers and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said two weeks ago they would form two groups to study ways to make light trucks less threatening both in frontal collisions with other vehicles and in side impacts with cars.
The alliances Strassburger says the voluntary approach would mean that improvements could be made faster than with cumbersome government regulations.
As for Runges remarks, Strassburger says, I dont believe he intended to condemn an entire class of vehicles. Such a condemnation is not supported by real-world data.