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The Sport-Utility Critic Detroit Can't Dismiss

Detroit has its hands full these days fending off attacks on sport-utility vehicles, the light trucks that environmentalists, consumer activists, and the media elite love to hate. Gas-guzzling SUVs put money in terrorists' pockets, cost thousands of lives a year in rollovers, and contribute to global warming, charges the anti-SUV crowd. Still, with the White House and Congress controlled by pro-business Republicans, you would think carmakers would be on Easy Street.

But while Detroit can dismiss such rabble-rousers, it can't easily wave away Jeffrey W. Runge, an emergency-room surgeon who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Before coming to Washington, Runge, 47, treated thousands of auto accident victims. Having seen his share of carnage, he became a crusader for safer roads.

Since his appointment 18 months ago, Runge's accomplishments have been mostly symbolic. He has used his NHTSA pulpit to campaign for more seat belt use and better enforcement of drunk driving laws. And he has tried to cajole Detroit into building safer SUVs and pickup trucks. But then he threw industry a curve: He said in January that he wouldn't let his teenage son drive an SUV with a high rollover rate "if it was the last one on earth."

On Feb. 11, Runge will turn up the heat. In a speech to auto execs, he's expected to call for design changes to boost SUV safety, some of which could be costly. NHTSA will issue non-binding recommendations for reducing SUV-related injuries by lowering bumpers, adding side air bags, and creating chassis with more "give" to soften impacts.

On Feb. 26, Runge could really strip Detroit's gears when he tells John McCain's Senate Commerce Committee that safety and SUVs, as now designed, are mutually exclusive. He'll let the numbers do the talking: Per 100,000 registered vehicles, the death rate from rollovers in SUVs is more than twice that of passenger cars.

What most worries Detroit is that Runge's criticisms dovetail with those of the increasingly vocal anti-SUV crowd. Lately they have been front and center, thanks to the catchy "What would Jesus drive?" public-relations blitz--paid for by evangelical Christians concerned about global warming. And in January, onetime conservative celeb Arianna Huffington got gallons of ink with an ad campaign that attempted to link driving SUVs to financing terrorism. Gripes one auto industry insider: "Runge has given Huffington weapons-grade plutonium." Even consumer advocates like him. Says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator: "He's very bright, and he's not a tool or sycophant."

But Runge is no rabid regulator, either. He declined to comment for this article, but in a Jan. 14 speech, he said the Administration prefers "voluntary brilliance to enforced compliance." For now, such talk appeases Office of Management & Budget regulatory czar John D. Graham, who praises Runge's "excellent work." But to carmakers, for whom a hostile market is even more frightening than federal meddling, the public jawboning amounts to de facto regulation. With McCain and consumer groups watching the doctor's back, it would be political folly for Detroit to push for Runge's ouster. Instead, industry is mulling a grassroots campaign to tell its side of the story.

Carmakers say they already are improving SUV design. "Safety is very important to us," says GM North America President Gary L. Cowger. GM lowered the front of its 2002 Chevrolet Trailblazer and GMC Envoy, and Ford is lowering the front bumper on Explorers. For years, however, the auto lobby ducked any proposal that threatened SUV sales, which account for 90% of the Big Three's profits. As the battle moves from Washington to the arena of public opinion, Detroit is on the defensive. "Regulation" might be a dirty word in the Bush Administration, but it seems the top auto safety official never got the memo. To fulfill its watchdog mission, the new accounting oversight board created last year by Congress must attract top-quality staff. But demand for accountants by Big Four firms, corporations, and the SEC has skyrocketed. A source close to the board says it isn't seeing as many top-notch, reform-minded accountants as expected. One hitch: Some interviewees worry that a stint at the board, which will discipline wayward accountants, could kill their chances of getting a job later on at a big firm. Korn/Ferry International, which is recruiting for the board's top posts, says it's getting high-caliber prospects. Winning fast-track trade authority last year was supposed to let President Bush whisk trade deals through Congress. So far, that hasn't happened. The Administration has notified Congress it has reached free-trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, but it has released only bare-bones details, citing a 90-day congressional comment period before Bush formally signs. But some lawmakers are balking at the rush job: They can't get feedback from lobbyists, who can't get texts of the agreements because they remain classified. The result: Both deals remain secret to all but a small group of outside White House advisers.

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