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STRENGTHENED SAFETY STANDARDS SOUGHT FOR SPORT-UTILITY VEHICLES

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The government's auto safety agency wants to strengthen safety standards for pickup trucks, minivans and other sport-utility vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a side-impact crash test for those vehicles, which account for one-third of new automobile sales in the United States.They now must meet a side-impact test that involves placing a barrier against the door and applying force. The proposal, mandated in a federal transportation law, would add a test with a moving barrier similar to one that passenger cars recently have become subject to.

It would simulate a crash between a test vehicle traveling at 15 mph being struck on the side by a light truck traveling at 30 mph. Dummies would be used to assess the potential for injury.

Chest and pelvic injuries from side collisions cause an average of 245 deaths and 970 serious injuries each year in the vehicles, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the past several years, said Christopher A. Hart, acting administrator of the safety agency.

The testing would be phased in over four years, beginning two years after the standard took effect.

"This proposal is an important part of our effort to make sure that occupants of light trucks and vans are given a level of protection comparable to that provided to occupants of passenger cars," said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.

Though safety regulations on them haven't caught up with those imposed on passenger cars, the vehicles have better safety records, said Barry Felrice, associate director for rulemaking for the safety agency.

In 1991, the last year for which detailed data are available, there were 26 occupant deaths for every million miles traveled in light trucks. That compares with 53 deaths per million miles in passenger cars, Felrice said.

The trade group for the Big Three U.S. automakers said considerably fewer than 1 percent of occupants of light trucks are seriously injured in accidents involving a side impact. It said increasing use of restraints such as seat belts would be more effective by preventing ejections.

"Most light trucks and multipurpose vehicles are designed to meet current side-impact standards for passenger cars," the American Automobile Manufacturers Association said in a written statement.

The vehicles already are subject to a front-impact crash test, which involves slamming into a wall at 30 mph.