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Safe SUV Driving No Accident

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State attorneys general announced a $27 million ad campaign Monday designed to coax SUV owners to drive safely by challenging them to "master" the vehicles.

The campaign, funded through a settlement with Ford Motor Co., is targeted at men ages 18 to 34, a group of drivers who are disproportionately likely to be involved in SUV rollovers and yet who tend to think they're invulnerable.

"Research shows ... men in this group would not respond well to lectures or to threats, so we knew we had to take a novel approach," said Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.

The campaign, unveiled at a news conference at the Central Park Zoo, features a monster named Esuvee that resembles a woolly mammoth with headlights.

The ads urge SUV drivers not to speed, not to overload the vehicles, to check tire pressure regularly and to wear seatbelts.

On Tuesday, The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen spoke with David Champion of Consumer Reports magazine to get words of wisdom on driving SUVs safely.

Among the areas of interest:

  • Handling: SUVs have a higher center of gravity than passenger cars, which contributes to the higher risk of rollover. The chances of an SUV rollover are further increased by speeding, abrupt maneuvers, inattentiveness, tailgating, recklessness, aggressiveness or impaired driving.
  • Loading: According to the new consumer survey, nearly 50 percent of Americans do not know that overloading an SUV increases the risk of rollovers. The number of occupants, as well as the weight and distribution of cargo, raises a SUV's center of gravity, increasing the risk of rollover.
  • Tires: Tire size, pressure and maintenance are keys to SUV safety. Drivers should monitor each of these, and take them into account when loading an SUV.
  • Seat belts: Perhaps the most preventable cause of death in an SUV rollover is ejection from the vehicle. Eighty percent of those killed in SUV rollovers are unbelted.

    Champion's advice:

    Don't overload: "The SUV is huge inside. You think you can stuff it with all the stuff you can think of. But, SUVs don't really carry care as much weight as you think. Look on the [sticker inside the driver's door]. It will tell you how much weight that can carry. And that includes the passengers. I'm not saying you should ask the passengers how heavy they are. Take a rough estimate and then figure out how much load you can put on the back.

    "The easy way to pack an SUV is to put all of the load in the back, because that makes it easy. But, what you should do is push [the load] all of the way forward. You want to get the load as far forward as you can and as low as possible, and that way it helps the balance of the vehicle and also keeps the center of gravity as low as possible."

    Don't use the roof rack. "All SUVs come with roof racks, but it's the most dangerous place to put any load. It's so high. …If you put a great amount of load at the top, it can easily upset the balance of the vehicle, making it roll over. Each time you put anything in the vehicle -- passengers, load, especially a roof rack -- it raises that center gravity and makes it more susceptible to a rollover."

    Tire Pressure: It's "very important for any vehicle, but particularly in SUVs. What happens is, if the tire pressure gets low, the tires overheat, you have a chance of a blowout, and then the car goes out of control and can also roll over.

    "Check your tire pressures monthly with a good digital gauge. It's a nice readout. It tells you exactly it is. Also check the outside of the tire. You might find bubbles if you caught if you caught a curve or something like that. Any of those imperfections can cause the tire to fail. The car slides sideways, and maybe rolls over."

    Drive more slowly: "An SUV gives you a great sense of security, maybe a false sense of security in many ways: They're big; they're heavy; you sit up high. You don't get that perception of speed. But when you come to an emergency maneuver, they tend to be a lot slower to react. They tend to move around and can slide sideways. As soon as you get the SUV sliding sideways, there's a possibility it will roll over."

    Order the vehicle with Electronic Stability Control: "It's a feature that works in conjunction with ABS brakes, and if the car starts to slide sideways, applies a brake to one wheel and brings the car back into line. It can help the SUV not get into a situation where it can roll over. It's very important to buy. It comes standard on some SUVs. We wish it was standard on all SUVs."

    In one of the Esuvee ad campaign's 30-second spots, men ride the "Esuvee beast" as they would a bucking bronco, while a voice-over intones, "Anybody can ride an Esuvee, but not everybody rides it right."

    "What we want to do through this campaign is to remove the halo that SUVs now have ... the halo effect that makes young men particularly feel that they are invulnerable or invincible when they are behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

    The campaign, which will also include print and online ads, is the result of a 2002 settlement between the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and Ford, which the states charged with deceptive ads promoting the safety of SUVs.

    National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that in 2002 there were 2,448 deaths and 58,000 injuries from SUV rollover crashes in the United States.

    The same study found that 67 percent of adults involved in fatal SUV rollovers were male and 61 percent of fatal SUV rollovers involved people between 20 and 39 years old.

    But Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa, said a recent survey shows that more than 4 in 10 Americans believe they are safer in an SUV than in a car.

    Instead, Miller said, "Their tendency to roll over makes them much more lethal than virtually any other vehicle on the road, technological and mechanical advancements notwithstanding."

    Ford spokesman Glenn Ray said in a statement, "We agree with the state attorneys general that drivers should always remember to wear their safety belts, avoid excessive speed, and operate their vehicles safely. This applies to all vehicles -cars, trucks and SUVs."

    Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, questioned whether the ads would produce the desired effect.

    "There's been a ton of research to suggest that people don't change their behavior just through education," Ferguson said. "Just exhorting people to do the right thing does not have the effect of changing their behavior."

    She said that what makes people slow down and drive safely is the threat of a ticket.