WASHINGTON -- The government will give consumers the most precise information yet on ratings for vehicle rollover dangers on Monday, but safety advocates and some carmakers say methods used to measure the risk still fall short.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will for the first time issue rankings for rollover propensity in single-vehicle crashes, assigning a percentage risk for different 2004 models. Many popular SUVs, pickups and minivans, because of their high center of gravity, are more prone to roll than cars.
Rollovers represent only a small fraction of crashes on U.S. roads but a quarter of all traffic deaths, which rose to 43,000 in 2003, statistics show. Most rollover deaths occur in single-vehicle accidents.
The agency will also release a preliminary review of technology designed to electronically counter dangerous side-to-side vehicle movements that can trigger rollover.
Electronic stability systems, which activate subtle shifts in braking and steering controls, are mainly found on luxury and imported cars in the United States. But they will become standard on more domestic vehicles in 2005.
Ford Motor Co., whose popular Explorer SUV was at the center of deadly rollovers in the Firestone tire debacle, is investing heavily in improved stability systems.
Under the system in place, vehicles are given one to five stars depending on how likely they are to roll over. Most passenger cars receive at least four stars, indicating low risk, while it is more common for SUVs and other light trucks to get three, or sometimes two.
"We are supplementing the star ratings with two additional pieces of information -- the percentage of roll in a single-vehicle crash and how a vehicle compares to other vehicles in its class," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency.
Monday's announcement will likely focus on SUVs. The agency's administrator, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, has been critical of SUV safety and has accelerated efforts to reduce rollover deaths in SUVs by pushing for more seat belt use, side airbags with head protection and stronger roofs.
Rollovers accounted for nearly 40 percent of fatal accidents that involved SUVs last year. Rollover deaths in those vehicles rose by 10 percent to 2,700 in 2003, government crash statistics showed.
CONSUMER, CAR GROUPS CRITICAL
The government's star system for rollover is based on two factors -- a mathematical assessment of vehicle measurements called a static test, and a road test during which vehicles are turned sharply to see if they tip. More weight is given to static results than to the road test, which was introduced this year.
"The dynamic test represents only a small fraction of real world rollovers," Tyson said.
But consumer and safety groups remain critical of the agency's methods for determining that risk. They want a more rigorous road test to better mimic real world conditions.
"We don't like the fact that the overwhelming majority of rollovers are being measured with a static calculation," said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Carmakers are also skeptical of the ratings, saying they make overly broad assumptions on vehicle stability based on limited information.
"There are so many other variables in the real world that have to be addressed," said Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman. "It (star rating) is not something that consumers should rely on 100 percent."