to March 2003 Newsletter
Honorable Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Committee On Commerce, Science, And Transportation
United States Senate
Members of the Committee, thank you for asking me to appear before
you to testify about the safety of sport utility vehicles (SUVs).
I had the pleasure of testifying before the Committee last year
about our agencys priorities and I appreciate the opportunity
to describe how SUV safety fits into these priorities. I look
forward to working with you as we seek to make our roads safer
for all highway users.
I want to
begin by giving you some data to set the safety context. In 2001,
our data show that 42,116 people lost their lives in highway crashes
and more than three million people were injured. The number of
fatal injuries has been at about this level for the past several
years. In view of the steady increase in travel, this means that
the fatality rate is stable or declining slightly. The number
of injuries was almost five percent lower than in the prior year
a significant decline. There is reason for hope in these
numbers, and a sign that safety measures are having an effect.
Highway travel on a vehicle mile basis is far safer than it was
20 years ago.
new about these statistics is that they reflect the experience
of a vehicle fleet that is very different from the fleet of 20
years ago. A more complex fleet, including vehicles such as minivans
and SUVs that scarcely existed before, has replaced the fleet
that was once dominated by passenger cars. There are now over
79 million light trucks on the road including pickups,
minivans, and SUVs representing about 36 percent of registered
passenger vehicles in the United States. With light trucks now
accounting for nearly 50 percent of new vehicle sales, their share
of the total fleet is growing steadily.
overall fleet is safer, the new fleet composition presents new
safety issues. Two issues stand out. Rollover is one issue. Pickups
and SUVs are involved in a higher percentage of rollovers than
passenger cars the rate of fatal rollovers for pickups
is twice that for passenger cars and the rate for SUVs is almost
three times the passenger car rate. Overall, rollover affects
about three percent of passenger vehicles involved in crashes
but accounts for 32 percent of passenger vehicle occupant fatalities.
Single vehicle rollover crashes accounted for 8,400 fatalities
in 2001. Rollover crashes involving more than one vehicle accounted
for another 1,700 fatalities, bringing the total fatality count
to more than 10,000.
is the other issue. While light trucks represent 36 percent of
all registered vehicles, they are already involved in about half
of all fatal two-vehicle crashes with passenger cars. In these
crashes, over 80 percent of the resulting fatalities are to occupants
of the passenger cars. This problem will continue to grow as the
percentage of light trucks in the fleet increases. SUVs account
for about 35 percent of light truck sales.
issues are at the top of our vehicle safety agenda. I will address
them in detail in a minute, but first I want to underline the
importance of personal responsibility in highway safety.
We take a
comprehensive approach to safety, which means that we look at
the driver as well as the vehicle. We know that safety belt usage
directly affects injury severity and the chances of survival in
We can reduce
the effects of the rollover problem overnight if all occupants
will simply buckle their safety belts. The belts are there in
every vehicle. They are 80 percent effective in preventing deaths
in rollovers involving light trucks, and 74 percent effective
in rollovers involving passenger cars. Yet 72 percent of the occupants
of these vehicles who die in rollover crashes are not wearing
safety belts. Of the fatally injured occupants, almost 60 percent
are ejected from the vehicle, a percentage reflecting the violent
and lethal nature of the rollover event.
We are intensifying
our efforts to increase the level of safety belt use, through
national safety belt mobilizations and by supporting the enactment
of primary safety belt laws. Primary laws are more readily enforceable
than secondary laws and lead to higher usage rates. Data show
that the usage rate of safety belts in States with primary belt
laws is 11 percentage points higher than the rate in other States.
In 2002, the belt use rate reached 80 percent in primary belt
law States for the first time. We will not solve the problem of
low belt use unless the States adopt laws that can be readily
issue of driver responsibility is driving while impaired by alcohol
or drugs. Impaired driving remains a constant problem on the highways.
Alcohol is involved in 41 percent of the nations highway
fatalities overall, and in a like percentage of fatal rollover
the issues of the vehicle and the driver are inextricably linked.
Many of the deaths and injuries that could be prevented through
vehicle performance standards can also be prevented through measures
to improve driver performance.
to SUV safety reflects this comprehensive view. We have made the
issues Ive mentioned rollover, compatibility, seat
belt use, and impaired driving the focus of special teams,
known as Integrated Project Teams, that bring together expertise
from all parts of the agency. I asked the teams to look at the
best data available on these issues and to identify action items
that the agency should pursue. We will be incorporating the results
of the teams work into a coordinated strategy to address
each problem, which we will publish in the Federal Register in
the near future. Although my remarks today will focus mainly on
the vehicle issues, I urge you to keep all four issues in mind
as you consider the question of SUV safety.
First, I want
to address the issue of rollover. Under our consumer information
authority, we carry out a program known as the New Car Assessment
Program (NCAP). Through NCAP, we provide comprehensive information
to aid consumers in their vehicle purchase decisions. The vehicle
manufacturers have shown that they will voluntarily modify the
design of their vehicles to improve their NCAP ratings. We welcome
their efforts. Data shows that vehicles are becoming safer as
We have used
our consumer information authority to add a rollover resistance
rating to NCAP beginning in model year 2001 that is based on estimates
of the risk that a vehicle will roll over if it is involved in
a single-vehicle crash. The rating is based on a vehicles
static stability factor or SSF, which
is a measure of a vehicles track width (the distance between
two wheels on the same axle) in proportion to the height of its
center of gravity. Our analysis of real-world crashes shows that
the ratings correlate very closely with the real-world rollover
experience of vehicles. The lowest-rated vehicles (1-star) are
at least 40 percent more likely to roll over than the highest-rated
of the National Academy of Sciences recently studied our rating
system for rollovers. While concluding that the static stability
factor is an excellent predictor of single-vehicle rollover crashes,
the committee stated that a dynamic rollover test might improve
the rating system. The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability,
and Documentation (TREAD) Act directed us to develop such a test.
We published a notice of proposed rulemaking under the TREAD Act
last fall to prescribe a dynamic rollover test, received comments,
and completed our own testing using the procedures in the proposal.
We will publish a final rule in the near future. The dynamic rollover
test will show how new vehicles actually perform in emergency
steering maneuvers. Together, the static stability factor and
the dynamic test will give manufacturers an incentive not only
to improve the static stability of their vehicles but also to
improve suspension systems and add stability control technology.
consumers about voluntary improvements to rollover safety will
help ensure that manufacturers who make such improvements are
rewarded in the marketplace. The NCAP information will help consumers
identify the vehicles that are more resistant to rollovers.
exert a powerful influence on vehicle choice, but consumers must
be informed of the relative risks among vehicles in order to make
appropriate market choices. Manufacturers will respond by providing
vehicles that people want to buy. In areas in which consumer information
enables consumers to discriminate among vehicles based on their
safety, we will see the fleet change much faster than through
the traditional regulatory approach. We have been trying our best
all through this administration to find ways to ensure that consumers
are informed about the differences among vehicles and the importance
of becoming educated before making a vehicle purchase.
forces are relatively fast and efficient, the agency recognizes
that certain changes can best be effected through the rulemaking
process. NHTSA is accordingly working on four rulemaking initiatives
to help reduce deaths and injuries when a rollover crash occurs.
One is a proposed upgrade of door lock requirements. The proposed
upgrade will be published this year. Second, we are completing
our evaluation of the current roof crush standard and expect to
propose an upgrade of that standard early in 2004. Third, the
agency intends to pursue rulemaking to consider possible ways
to prevent ejection out of windows during a rollover. Finally,
we have asked vehicle manufacturers about their plans to voluntarily
install more effective seat belt reminders. In addition, we are
awaiting the report this summer by the National Academy of Sciences
evaluating technologies to increase seat belt use.
In the meantime,
since it takes time to establish credible, scientific performance
standards, we are encouraging the manufacturers to take voluntary
steps to make vehicles more resistant to rollovers and to incorporate
technologies that will make vehicles more protective when rollovers
occur. Last month I suggested to the industry that they work toward
a consensus on rollover sensing technologies for these systems,
and encouraged them to examine the use of technology to increase
safety belt use, also an essential part of anti-ejection efforts.
team is working on innovative ways of preventing rollovers and
mitigating injuries associated with these crashes. The team is
examining safety belts, roof-rail air bags, roof crush, tire safety,
and other vehicle issues, as well as possible NCAP information
on roof crush, tire safety, and vehicle handling. Next month we
will be publishing information in the Federal Register that will
reflect the work of this team.
or regulations can both have unintended consequences. We will
therefore proceed expeditiously but deliberately. The physicians
overriding ethic is first, do no harm. We want to
avoid harmful effects such as might result if an increase in roof
strength resulted in raising the center of gravity, which could
increase the propensity of a vehicle to roll over. We will continue
to approach this holistically rather than through simple discreet,
like to turn to compatibility. In simple terms, compatibility
is the degree to which vehicles are matched in vehicle-to-vehicle
crashes. In the fleet of 20 years ago, the primary incompatibility
was one of weight, involving large cars and small cars. However,
the arrival of SUVs and increased numbers of pickups has made
other incompatibilities important as well incompatibility
in vehicle height and in the alignment of interacting vehicle
structures, such as bumpers and chassis frame rails. There are
also differences in the stiffness and design of their structures
and in style of construction -- vehicles with frames versus those
with unibody construction.
appear to be increasing. For example, in model year 1990 the average
weight difference between light trucks and passenger cars was
about 830 pounds. By model year 2001, the weight difference had
increased to 1,130 pounds (based on EPAs Fuel Economy Trends
Report). Similar changes are occurring in front-end heights and
in stiffness. The average initial stiffness of pickups and SUVs
is about twice that of passenger cars.
cars experience the greatest risk in frontal and side impact.
For every driver fatality in a full-size van striking a car from
the front, there are six driver fatalities in the passenger car.
For every driver fatality in a full-size pickup, there are 6.2
driver fatalities in the car.
is much worse for side crashes. The higher frame rails of a pickup
truck or SUV may override the rails of a passenger car, resulting
in greater intrusion. Likewise, the higher engine compartment
poses a risk for passenger car occupants. When a pickup truck
strikes the side of a passenger car, there are 26 fatalities among
passenger car drivers for every driver fatality in the pickup.
When a SUV strikes a passenger car, there are 16 driver fatalities
in the passenger car for every driver fatality in the SUV.
differences make SUVs and all light trucks more aggressive than
passenger cars in their interaction with other vehicles. Based
on our analysis, weight incompatibility and impact location each
have a large effect on vehicle aggressivity. However, size and
structure are also important. When controlling for impact location,
and comparing light trucks to passenger cars of comparable weight,
we found that light trucks were more than twice as likely as a
car to cause a fatality when striking a car.
manufacturers have voluntarily introduced changes to their SUVs
that will lead to improved compatibility in crashes with automobiles.
The primary focus of these changes has been to improve the geometric
mismatch between the frontal structures of the SUVs with those
of the automobiles so as to improve the structural interaction
during a crash.
a broad range of research activities currently underway on vehicle
compatibility. Our immediate goal is to generate knowledge that
government and industry alike can use. We are continuing to investigate
real-world crashes, conducting crash testing, using computer modeling,
and participating in international forums on vehicle compatibility.
This information ultimately enables manufacturers to meet consumers
needs while producing vehicles that are less aggressive in a crash.
This research also will provide the basis for future rulemakings.
We have also
stepped up research related to side crash protection and research
to evaluate the potential of advanced inflatable safety systems
for preventing ejections in rollovers and protecting occupants
in side impact crashes.
2002, we published for public comment a 4-year vehicle safety
rulemaking priority plan. Rollover and compatibility were identified
in the draft plan along with many other safety issues. In addition
to considering public comment submitted in response to the plan,
we are currently examining the research support that will be needed
to implement those rules.
We also have
an agency-wide Integrated Project Team (IPT) addressing this issue.
The Compatibility Team currently is evaluating both aggressiveness
and incompatibility in multi-vehicle crashes, both through real-world
statistics and crash test data, to try to identify causation factors
and solutions that can be incorporated into the vehicle fleet
over time. This problem is being approached in two ways: by looking
at measures to improve the safety features of the struck vehicle
and measures to reduce the aggressiveness of the striking vehicle.
The strategies they recommend will be published in the Federal
Register this spring.
Just as important
to our work regarding the rollover propensity and compatibility
of future vehicles is our ongoing work to address concerns about
the relationship of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards
to safety. As you know, the Presidents National Energy Plan
emphasized our strong determination to take safety into account
when setting fuel economy standards.
We take seriously
the findings and recommendations of the congressionally mandated
study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concerning the
effect CAFE has had on vehicle safety. The NAS report concluded
that the current CAFE system has had an unintended negative effect
on passenger safety. It has in the past encouraged the divergence
between small and large vehicles in the vehicle fleet, which has
led to increased passenger fatalities and injuries. The NAS found
that CAFE standards contributed to both the sale and production
of lighter and smaller cars to meet the standard and the displacement
of large passenger cars by minivans and SUVs in the nations
vehicle fleet, with negative consequences for vehicle safety.
We are completing a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of
the changes in vehicle weight and safety that have occurred in
the years since the CAFE standards went into effect.
urged Congress to lift a six-year freeze on setting new CAFE standards,
and we were pleased when it did so in December 2001. Since then,
our agency has been hard at work setting sound, science-based
light truck fuel economy standards for model years 2005 through
2007, which we will issue by April 1. Our proposed increases are
the highest in 20 years and can be implemented without compromising
safety or employment.
NHTSA will also publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
to ask for comments about fuel economy standards beyond model
year 2007. Many new fuel-saving technologies are on the point
of being introduced. We want to find ways to improve fuel economy
significantly while protecting passenger safety and jobs.
We know that,
to a significant degree, the CAFE program and our past rules defining
light trucks have contributed to the problems we now seek to solve.
We will be asking how we might restructure the CAFE program under
the current statutory authority to solve these safety problems.
We are asking Congress to make safety and employment explicit
statutory criteria for future CAFE rulemakings. And we will ask
Congress for statutory authority to reform the CAFE system, perhaps
along the lines recommended by the NAS, if we conclude that is
the most appropriate way to improve fuel economy while protecting
passenger safety and jobs. We expect that our evaluation of vehicle
weight and safety will be considered in this rulemaking proceeding.
We are committed
to reducing the problems of rollover and incompatibility. But
NHTSA cannot do this successfully by itself. The manufacturers
are fully aware of our concerns, and many have committed to address
these problems. We are gratified by the recent response to our
call for action from the automotive industry. The Alliance of
Auto Manufacturers convened a meeting this month of the worlds
experts in compatibility, which was led by the Insurance Institute
for Highway Safety. I received a letter on February 13 from the
Alliance and the Insurance Institute stating their commitment
to working on the issue. This is imperative.
We will be
looking closely at the data from industrys forthcoming research
as well as our own to make vehicles more compatible and to help
individuals in the struck vehicles survive and avoid serious injury.
The Alliance informed us last week that they intend to use the
same approach to an industry-wide initiative to address rollover.
This is good news for their customers and for all Americans who
depend on them for safe, reliable, and comfortable transportation.
this concludes my overview of the safety of SUVs. The issues involved
are challenging, but I believe that we are meeting the challenge
and that our actions will improve safety on the nations
highways. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have.
to March 2003 Newsletter