Washington — The government rated rollover risks for passenger vehicles for the first time Tuesday, giving its worst grade to two General Motors sport utility vehicles. The highest rating went to the Honda Accord.
Auto industry representatives were quick to criticize the new system, describing it as simplistic. And consumer advocates, too, said actual driving tests should be used, not just vehicle measurements.
Harry Pearce, vice chairman of General Motors Corp., called the five-star system "misleading to consumers." He said the ratings fail to account for such factors as a vehicle's suspension and tires and driver behavior.
If consumers check comparative rollover risks, they "will be better able to choose a safe vehicle for themselves and their family," Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said in releasing the ratings.
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.
The ratings could be especially important to prospective buyers of SUVs. More than 60 percent of SUV occupants killed in 1999 died in rollover crashes, according to the government. Twenty-three percent of car occupants who were killed died in rollovers. Rollover crashes kill an estimated 10,000 people each year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rated 42 model-year 2001 vehicles: 19 SUVs, 11 light trucks, nine passenger cars and three vans.
The Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy/Envoy four-door 4X2 SUVs drew the lowest score, a one-star rating. Those vehicles' 4x4 versions and the Ford Explorer 4x4, target of dozens of lawsuits as a result of rollover accidents, were among those rated two stars.
Behind the Honda Accord's five stars, several passenger cars, two light trucks the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra ExCab 4x2 models and two vans Honda Odyssey and Chrysler PT Cruiser were given four stars.
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.
"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," she said, "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."
Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said the ratings show heavy loads reduce stability in a crash but the government should use a more accurate dynamic driving test.
"You can't tell how a food will taste by reading the ingredient list," she said. "Similarly, you can't tell how a vehicle will perform by measuring it."