WASHINGTON - A federal decision to include warnings about head injury risks in vehicles that the government crash tests is creating potentially confusing safety information for consumers.
Late last week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave its highest possible side-impact crash scores - five stars for the front and rear - to the 2002 Mitsubishi Montero Sport and Suzuki Grand Vitara, but the agency added a footnote in each case. It says rear passengers could suffer serious or fatal head injuries.
"There is a little inconsistency there," says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The institute has designed a test for measuring how well cars and trucks protect crash dummies, especially their heads, in side impacts by higher-riding light trucks. It will be issuing its first results in late May or early June.
So NHTSA has gotten a jump on the institute in putting out alerts about head injuries. "I would hate to think they are motivated that way - although they might be, because they know that our system will score heads very heavily. So perhaps they don't want to be charged with ignoring head injury risk," O'Neill says.
The government has no provision in either its motor vehicle safety standards or in its consumer information ratings for measuring the likelihood of head injuries on crash dummies in side-impact tests.
But NHTSA reconfirms it is preparing to rewrite the government's side-impact safety standard to include head protection in side crashes.
Such a rule change could take years to accomplish. In the meantime, NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd says the agency established a policy two years ago to notify the public when it uncovers safety concerns beyond the normal scope of the ratings, known as the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP. So, NHTSA has been adding footnotes about increased risk of thigh injuries and about unexpected incidents, such as fuel spillage, which turned up in crash tests.
Last week's alerts about head injury risks were firsts. Hurd says the NCAP results released last week were the last ones for 2002 models. He says their release was delayed because of lengthy discussions between NHTSA and manufacturers over some findings.
Mitsubishi Motors North America says in a statement that the Montero Sport meets or exceeds all federal safety standards and that the crash dummy used by NHTSA for NCAP testing has not been validated for measuring head injuries in a side-impact test.