WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. auto safety regulator said on Wednesday he would let carmakers voluntarily improve the safety of SUVs but left open the option of forcing them to make changes if necessary.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a congressional hearing the industry can move more swiftly than government on safety improvements.
"I bet they get there before we get there," Runge, a former emergency room physician, said of separate efforts under way by his agency and the industry to reduce the risks of rollover and other hazards of the bigger, more powerful SUVs sharing the road with smaller cars.
"We will be moving in parallel and we will be watching them closely. Hopefully it can be done without huge regulation," Runge told the Senate Commerce Committee.
Declaring he would not let members of his family drive some SUV models, Runge nevertheless said some SUVs are as safe as cars. He did not say which ones were off limits in his family.
There are 22 million SUVs on U.S. roads, about 10 percent of the total number of vehicles.
America's love affair with SUVs, which began in the early 1990s, has cooled in the past three years with flat sales and the emergence of smaller, more carlike SUVs, often referred to as crossover vehicles.
Besides safety concerns, gas-guzzling big SUVs have been criticized for contributing to the United States' dependence on foreign oil.
The industry has recently acknowledged SUV safety concerns as federal regulators and Congress have sharpened their focus on the issue.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said auto companies agree with government figures showing the fatality rate in rollovers is three times greater for those in SUVs than for those in cars.
They are looking at remedies like enhanced head restraint systems to reduce deaths and injuries. Some carmakers, including Ford Motor Co., have made design changes to reduce the risk of SUV rollover.
Automakers have also promised to work together to reduce fatalities and injuries resulting from weight and size differences of SUVs and cars. Some long-term improvements could involve design changes in one or both classes of vehicles.
An analysis of government data by an insurance industry group that covered all accidents, not just rollovers, showed that SUV fatality rates have fallen sharply in recent years and are almost even with cars.
But the analysis also showed that because of their size and stiffness, SUVs can cause considerable damage to smaller cars in certain crashes.
"SUVs inflict more harm on occupants than other cars do," said Brian O'Neill, president of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The auto industry defended SUV safety.
"SUVs are twice as protective of their occupants than any other passenger vehicle in frontal, side and rear-impact crashes, which make up 97 percent of all crashes," Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president of safety, told Senate lawmakers.
Some critics complain the industry is ceding some ground to ease pressure for new regulation and that voluntary design changes could take several years.