Test and tell

When is a warning label useful? When it can help you avoid a hazard.

A warning on a pill bottle that says, "Avoid alcoholic beverages while using this product," empowers you. It's within your control to avoid the pills, or the alcohol, or both.

But labels on sport utility vehicles (SUVs) warning that making sharp turns may cause the vehicle to roll over, are not so useful when you are suddenly confronted by an emergency. Like an intermittent electrical failure, you never know when the problem will occur. When a child or deer darts in front of your vehicle or a large object falls off a truck in front of you, you must make a split-second decision to avoid a tragedy. You need to do whatever it takes - including making sharp turns. And if those turns result in a rollover, you are in grave trouble, even though you've read and remembered the warning label.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just revised the label it requires on many SUVs as part of its effort to reduce deaths and injuries from SUV rollovers. The new label is more visual and less wordy than its predecessor, with graphics that encourage drivers and passengers to buckle their seat belts. If that makes even a few more people buckle up, the new label will be a great service. But if we rely on such a label to also reduce the occurrence of rollover in the first place, we will be disappointed. In reality, the label is the government's painful acknowledgment that there is, in fact, cause for serious concern.

The truth is, you can't sticker over such a fundamental safety problem. The best approach is for the consumer to drive a safer vehicle to begin with.

That is the goal of ongoing research at NHTSA that should become public this spring. It calls for a "test and tell" approach, similar to what's done when the agency tests a vehicle's performance in crashes and publishes the results. Currently, an auto buyer can compare crash test results when choosing a vehicle. In similar fashion, NHTSA is developing a test or series of dynamic performance measures that would indicate how likely it is that an SUV will roll over. The results ideally would be published and made prominent for the consumer at the point of purchase.

This would help the individual car buyer distinguish the rollover risks among SUVs. That way, the consumer - whether a rough-and-tumble off-roader or a soccer parent hauling kids to the next game - can make an informed choice. And it would put further pressure on the industry to do what it should do in the first place - design new vehicles with rollover safety uppermost in mind. Some manufacturers have made great progress on this already, producing SUVs with considerably improved stability. But too much time has been spent blaming the victims, arguing that driver behavior is the culprit. Unfortunately, the blame game doesn't reduce the pattern of death and injury; it only helps prolong it.

It's good to see NHTSA expand its efforts to persuade consumers to buckle up. But, with respect to rollovers, we believe more concrete results can be achieved through the agency's research into a dynamic test for stability and a consumer information standard on rollover risks, so consumers can make an informed choice.

We'll all be watching in coming weeks for NHTSA's conclusions about the development of that standard. Millions of consumers depend on the agency to protect and empower the users of SUVs, not to appease the industry that makes them.

*R. David Pittle is technical director of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. He served as a commissioner of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1973-82.

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