The government on Thursday proposed a system to rate cars and trucks by their likelihood to roll over, prompted largely by the popularity and fatalities associated with sport utility vehicles.
Derided by the auto industry but partly supported by consumer groups, the measure would take effect this fall with year 2001 models. It would score vehicles on a scale of one to five stars - from most likely to roll over to least likely.
Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited figures showing that more than 9,500 people are killed each year in rollover crashes.
In 1998, more than 60 percent of people who died in SUV crashes were involved in rollovers. The rollover death toll fell to 40 percent in pickup trucks and 22 percent in passenger cars, according to the government.
"It is vital that consumers have information about the comparative rollover risk of various types of vehicles," said Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater in prepared remarks Thursday.
However, some analysts doubt whether rollover concerns are an issue with many buyers of sport-utility vehicles and light trucks.
"Not a bit," said Russell Duncan, a partner in the CAR Report of Dallas who meets regularly with dealers statewide. "Usually they conclude that they are not safe for the vehicles they hit."
He said sport-utility vehicles make up 28 to 31 percent of truck sales in the Dallas area - and trucks generally account for 55 to 60 percent of all new-vehicle sales. The CAR Report tracks monthly new-vehicle sales data and analyzes it for various clients, mostly new-car dealerships.
Some sport-utility vehicle owners in Dallas seem indifferent and even hostile to the federal proposal. Brenda Green, 52, who drives a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban, suggested that the Transportation Department just wants to scare consumers.
"The government ought to butt out," she said. "In my family, we all drive these kind of vehicles. And we've never been involved in a serious accident."
Transportation Department spokesman Rae Tyson said the government is not trying to steer car buyers toward certain vehicles with the proposed ratings. He said it's intended to provide them information so they can compare vehicles' rollover safety.
The star ratings would be based on a mathematical formula, called the vehicle's "static stability factor." It considers the width of the car's axle and the height of its center of gravity. Researchers have linked high rollover rates to vehicles with higher ground clearance.
Mr. Tyson said the scores have correlated very closely with actual crash tests.
Under the system, a score of one star would mean that the vehicle has a 40 percent or higher risk of rollover on sharp turns; two stars, 30 to 40 percent; three stars, 20 to 30 percent; four stars, 10 to 20 percent; and five stars, less than 10 percent.
If the proposed scale were applied to vehicles now on the road, most sport utility vehicles would score one to three stars, while passenger cars would range from four to five stars, the government said.
A spokeswoman for Consumers Union - the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, which regularly rates the safety of cars and trucks - said the proposal is a response to a petition it filed with the government agency four years ago.
"We're glad the government is now providing consumers with some information on the safety of vehicles. It's a milestone," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union in Washington. "The only concern we have is how it correlates with real-world vehicle behavior."
However, Public Citizen, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, believes the math formula should be used in conjunction with actual testing to arrive at meaningful scores.
"It's a meager effort," said president Joan Claybrook, who served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.
"It uses a math formula for assessing rollover, which anybody could do," she said. "Second, it doesn't require the car companies to conduct tests and put the results on the window sticker."
Automakers believe that other factors, such as driving habits and weather conditions, are more important.
Ford Motor Co. - the industry's top truck seller - said it supports consumer ratings that "provide valuable information to our customers." But the company said in a prepared statement that the government's proposed rating "does not provide useful information and at times, could be misleading.
"We conduct a wide variety of dynamic handling maneuvers - versus NHTSA's proposed static measurement - to evaluate our vehicles," the company said. "We do not believe at the present time there is one single metric that provides accurate information to consumers on vehicle rollovers."
In a written statement, a coalition of 13 car and light-truck manufacturers that includes Ford described NHTSA's formula as too simplistic to effectively reduce the incidence of rollovers.
The government ratings shouldn't affect sport utility vehicle sales in the short term, said industry consultant Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific Group Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif.
In the Dallas area, a recent compilation of truck sales data by the CAR Report showed that three of the 10 top-selling trucks are SUVs. They are the Ford Explorer (No. 3), the Ford Expedition (No. 6) and the Chevrolet Suburban (No. 7). Others on the list were pickups.
"If there's enough beating of bushes, you may see a technical solution to what essentially is a human problem," Mr. Hossack said. "Five years ago, I could not have said that. But there are some capabilities now that we didn't have a few years ago."
Those capabilities - which can be found on cars such as the Cadillac Seville, the Chevrolet Corvette and various models by Mercedes-Benz - use computers and high-tech suspension components to intervene when a vehicle is about to spin.
The systems usually can avert a spin and a rollover by precisely applying the brakes to one or more of a vehicle's wheels. The drawback is their expense and maintenance.
Right now, the government's rating system does not add points for vehicles that offer such systems, although the proposed rules could still be amended.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the recommended standards before the NHTSA implements them. Some consumer groups and automakers say they will encourage the agency to consider doing driving tests.
For a detailed look at the government's proposal or to find out how to comment, log onto this NHTSA web page: www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/rulings/Rollover/Index.html.
Staff writer Enrique Rangel contributed to this report.