The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to begin testing vehicles for rollover tendencies in the 2004 model year, which begins this fall. But some safety advocates fear the tests won't be as comprehensive as they should be.
A federal law enacted in late 2000 directed NHTSA to start the testing program by November 2002. But that law-the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act-handed the safety agency a slew of other responsibilities. So safety advocacy groups have complained little about delays.
Officials at Consumers Union, the organization that has pressed longest and hardest for rollover testing, say they are more concerned about whether NHTSA will have the money to test enough vehicles to provide comprehensive results for would-be car and truck buyers. ``It's been long enough for it to come into existence, and it would be a shame if it was empty of data,'' said David Pittle, senior vice president of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA administrator, told Congress in April that the agency planned to earmark $1.7 million to start road tests for rollover ratings in the 2004 model year. Agency officials note the rollover program isn't as costly as other tests NHTSA does for consumer information because vehicles are not crashed in the process.
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the planned spending of $1.7 million will be enough to do driving tests for rollover ratings on 36 vehicles-or about half the number of vehicles about which the agency produces consumer information each year.
He said the agency will expand the number of vehicles given rollover tests in coming years.
Sally Greenberg, lobbyist for Consumers Union, said her organization is disappointed and frustrated by the slow start to the rollover test program.
The Bush administration is asking for $17 million more for NHTSA operations-a 4 percent increase-in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. But now that accelerated and expanded tax cuts have been enacted and spending for the war on terrorism and homeland security are on the way up, Congress may tighten up elsewhere.
The main source of NHTSA consumer information has been the front- and side-impact crash tests that produce ratings of one to five stars for driver and passenger protection.
NHTSA now gives rollover ratings to vehicles, but the ratings are based solely on vehicle dimensions. Tall, narrow pickups and sport-utility vehicles get low scores. Wide, low cars get high scores.
Auto makers, wary of rollover ratings that they consider too simplistic, say driving tests at least promise to provide a clearer picture of vehicle characteristics than scores based only on dimensions.