Car industry playing down safety rankings by NHTSA

WASHINGTON: The auto industry sought to downplay figures released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last week ranking cars based on their susceptibility to rollovers in an accident.

WASHINGTON: The auto industry sought to downplay figures released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last week ranking cars based on their susceptibility to rollovers in an accident.

The figures marked the first time NHTSA has moved beyond its star rating, which simply awards a number of stars to each model based on its overall safety performance.

The results ranked the Ford Explorer Sport Trac at the bottom of the heap, with a 35% chance of rolling over in a single-car accident. That was the highest percentage of any of the 68 cars tested.

Mazda won the highest mark, with its four-door Mazda RX-8 sedan. That model came in with just an 8% rating.

While the stats for the two companies couldn't have been further apart, their PR tactics were virtually indistinguishable. Both sought to simultaneously praise NHTSA for performing the tests while downplaying their importance.

"We're trying to convey the point that real-world data on stats and experience is a more effective indicator of how a vehicle performs," said Kristin Kinley, Ford's environmental and safety policy spokeswoman. "Although we applaud NHTSA for taking this step, it is only one aspect of a vehicle's overall safety record."

While such a reaction may be expected from the maker of the lowest-ranked car, Mazda followed suit. In fact, Jeremy Barnes, the company's North American product communications manager, said Mazda was doing no outreach on the numbers and hadn't even composed a press release, despite being "very, very proud" of the results.

The reason, he said, was that companies who rely too heavily on safety numbers eventually pay a price.

"Touting safety numbers and crash-test numbers is always a bit of a double-edged sword," said Barnes. "You could be up on this one, down on another.

"You're only as good as your last test result," he explained.

Barnes added that although Mazda was not doing outreach, it was prepared to trumpet the stats to reporters who approached the company. To his knowledge, however, none did.

Asked if Mazda's decision to not tout the numbers was impacted by the fact that Ford owns 34% of the company, Barnes said only that spokesmen from each manufacturer "work closely" on such matters but do not coordinate messages.

Eron Shosteck, communications director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, backed the decisions.

"We always support getting the consumer useful information, but this is not a complete picture," he said.

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