Seeking a Safer SUV

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Can sport-utility vehicles regain their reputation? Last week the struggle was taking place in many forms. Ford Motor Co. settled a high profile, megamillion-dollar lawsuit by Donna Bailey, a single mother of two who was paralyzed when the Explorer she was in rolled over after a tire separation on a dry, uncongested highway in Texas. The next day, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration released "rollover" ratings to help consumers figure out which cars and trucks are more or less prone to do just that. Most cars received top marks on that count--4 or 5 (out of 5) stars. suvs were lucky to get three stars, and most, like the much maligned Explorer, received only two, which means a 30%-to-40% risk that they will flip in the event of a crisis on the road.

The heat is on the Explorer in particular, owing to the recall of more than 6.5 million Bridgestone/Firestone tires since last August. Explorers using those tires are linked to more than 100 deaths and many more injuries. In the face of hundreds of lawsuits, Firestone has admitted that its tires were fatally flawed. Although Ford plans to continue settling cases, the company maintains that there is nothing wrong with the Explorer's design that might have contributed to the accidents.

So what about those statistics? The NHTSA rollover ratings are based on a proportional comparison between a vehicle's center of gravity and the width between its tires. Generally, suvs have a higher center of gravity, which means they are more susceptible to rollovers, particularly if they skid or "trip" on a soft shoulder or a pile of snow.

But the NHTSA ratings aren't a comprehensive measure of a vehicle's tendency to flip--or a complete indicator of safety either. True, single-vehicle rollovers cause more fatalities than any other accident (a quarter of the roughly 40,000 deaths yearly). But in other crash statistics, like those for front or side collisions, suvs are safer than cars. And they provide a commanding view, which is partly why suvs remain the fastest-growing segment of the market, and the Explorer the most popular.

More important, the NHTSA ratings are static, which means they do not take into account how a car handles. Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports, last week criticized the ratings for this reason. Increasingly, the top-selling suvs have a battery of onboard systems that help prevent a rollover, including antilock brakes, independent suspensions and computerized monitoring systems that adjust power to each wheel when a skid begins.

The best evidence for this is Exhibit A: the 2002 model Ford Explorer. Just as the Firestone fiasco exploded, Ford was putting the finishing touches on its next generation Explorer, which is due out late next month. The new model has been in development since 1996, long before the tire crisis was visible. (Indeed, plaintiffs' lawyers are probing that process for evidence of Ford's culpability.) It has a longer and wider wheelbase, which make it more stable and, by the way, earned it three rollover stars in the NHTSA calculations. By the end of this year, the Explorer will be available with a battery of safety systems, from electronic tire-pressure monitors to "AdvanceTrac," which automatically corrects for a loss of traction or stability.

One important addition to the new Explorer would not have been possible before: an air-bag curtain that activates in the event of a rollover and envelops passengers in a cocoon. The technology is so new that Ford had to gamble that its supplier would be able to provide it.

No current SUV is as loaded with safety features as the new Explorer, but all suvs are heading in that direction. Safety, like environmental correctness, has become a critical marketing component for the entire industry. Now, as more suvs than ever arrive in showrooms, consumers just need a realistic safety measure by which to compare them.