WASHINGTON -- Two General Motors sport utility vehicles drew the lowest score Tuesday in the federal government's first ratings of passenger vehicles' resistance to rollover crashes.
The Chevrolet Blazer and GMC JimmyEnvoy four-door 4X2 SUVs had one-star ratings from the Transportation Department. Those vehicles' 4x4 versions and the Ford Explorer 4X4 SUV, target of dozens of lawsuits as a result of accidents, were rated two stars.
Only one vehicle among three dozen 2001 models tested, the four-door Honda Accord, received the top rating of five stars.
Several passenger cars, two light trucks - the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra ExCab 4X4 models - and two vans - Honda Odyssey and Chrysler PT Cruiser - were given four stars.
The government says rollover crashes kill 10,000 people each year.
By checking the comparative rollover risks, consumers "will be better able to choose a safe vehicle for themselves and their family," Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said in releasing the ratings. "By providing consumers with additional information, we can motivate manufacturers to respond with safer, more stable vehicles."
The ratings are especially important to prospective buyers of SUVs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which put together the rating program, said over 60 percent of the SUV occupants killed in 1999 died in rollover crashes. By comparison, 23 percent of car occupants killed had died when their vehicles rolled over.
The ratings are based on what NHTSA calls "static stability factor" - a measure of a vehicle's center of gravity and track width, or distance between rear tires, to determine how top-heavy the vehicle is. The more top-heavy, the more likely a vehicle is to roll over.
Thus, an SUV, being top-heavy, is more likely than a passenger car to get a lower rating. In these first ratings, no SUV rated higher than three stars.
Harry Pearce, vice chairman of General Motors Corp., said he had not seen the ratings but called the five-star system too simplistic and perhaps "misleading to consumers." He said the ratings fail to account for such factors as a vehicle's suspension and tires and driver behavior.
"All they're doing is measuring how wide and how high the center of gravity is using a mathematical formula," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 13 automakers. "If you were to carry out the reasoning, you'd conclude that we should not send students out in school buses, because they're tall and narrow, but send them out in sports cars.
"There's never one factor you can point to and say that's the reason for a rollover. It's usually several factors in varying degrees," Bergquist added. "Another way of saying it is that we should not rely just on a person's height and weight to measure their health."
Sue Bailey, the NHTSA administrator, said the ratings emphasize the wisdom of using seat belts.
"Your best chance of surviving a rollover is by buckling up," she said. "Eighty percent of the people killed in single-vehicle rollovers were unbelted, and we now that belted occupants are about 75 percent less likely to be killed in a rollover crash than unbelted occupants."
The rating system does not predict the likelihood of a crash. Rather, it estimates the risk of rolling over in a single-vehicle crash, usually when the vehicle runs off the road and is tripped by a curb, ditch or soft soil.
A five-star rating means a vehicle has a rollover risk of less than 10 percent. With four stars, the risk is between 10 percent and 20 percent; three stars, 20 percent to 30 percent; two stars, between 30 percent and 40 percent; and one star, greater than 40 percent.
By April, NHTSA expects to have ratings for more than 80 model-year 2001 vehicles.
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