WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators say 24 SUVs earned four-star rollover ratings in tests conducted during the 2005 model year.
Four years ago, when the government first issued rollover ratings, just one SUV got four stars: the Pontiac Aztek.
Vehicles earn one to five stars for their ability to resist rollovers. Safer vehicles get more stars, federal safety officials say.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Wednesday that the increased number of four-star SUVs is good news for consumers and the industry.
"We're happy about it," Runge told reporters. But he conceded that because of the relatively slow turnover in the nation's vehicle fleet, it will be years before the improved ratings translate into significantly fewer rollover deaths.
There are about 10,000 rollover fatalities each year. They account for one out of every four highway fatalities.
Runge said more rollover-resistant vehicles are available because automakers are designing light trucks with lower centers of gravity and wider tracks.
He cited "the willingness of manufacturers to use their engineering creativity to make more carlike utility vehicles" -- also known as sport wagons or crossovers.
Runge gave less credit to advanced technologies such as electronic stability control systems, which are designed to help motorists keep vehicles under control and on the road, where they are less likely to roll over.
But he said NHTSA remains enthusiastic about the crash-prevention potential of electronic stability control. He reaffirmed that the agency seeks to write performance standards that will encourage automakers to install the systems in more vehicles.
Cars continue to get the best rollover ratings. Minivans generally are close behind, and SUVs on average are improving. Pickups have improved less, NHTSA says.
The ratings are based primarily on a calculation that involves each vehicle's center of gravity and its track width. A driving maneuver, added two years ago, also is factored into the ratings.
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