US considers steps to improve SUV safety

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The government is considering steps to reduce deaths and serious injuries in crashes between passenger cars and light trucks, including popular sport utility vehicles, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is studying a number of measures to address safety concerns prompted by vastly different vehicle sizes.

While light trucks include pickup trucks and minivans, much of the focus has centered on SUVs.

Consumer and safety groups have long questioned their efficiency and safety, but the issue took on new prominence earlier this month when the Bush administration's top auto regulator spoke out.

Jeffrey Runge, an emergency room doctor and administrator of the highway traffic safety agency, said automakers needed to build safer sport utility vehicles or face the possibility of new regulation.

The traffic safety agency is compiling a list of safety recommendations and Runge is scheduled to testify on SUV safety at an upcoming Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Auto companies contend that SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road. But some, like Ford Motor Co. , have redesigned certain sport utility models to enhance their safety.

Design and other safety changes can drive up manufacturing costs.

According to government figures, there are nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 crashes involving a large pickup and another vehicle. The figure drops to 205 when a large sport utility is involved and 151 for small SUVs, like the Ford Explorer.

Among other things, the traffic safety agency is looking closely at the higher impact point when a pickup or sport utility vehicle hits a passenger car.

Options could include raising frames on some car makes or lowering them for some light trucks. Another concern of regulators is the stiffness of SUV and pickup frames, compared to the lighter frames of cars.

Reducing SUV rollovers is also a priority. Congress has directed the agency to develop new tests to assess vehicle rollover risk.

A Transportation Department spokesman said the new safety recommendations would be made public for comment and some could possibly wind up in regulations later on. It can take years for the government to approve a new rule.