SUV Rollover Deaths Climbing

SUV on road, graphic generic

On a closed test track, a professional driver performs an emergency steering maneuver simulating what can happen when a car drifts off the pavement and onto the shoulder of a road.

The abrupt over-correction causes the Honda sport utility vehicle to tip at a speed of just 45 miles per hour.

On an actual highway it would have resulted in a rollover accident -- and possibly a fatality.

Rollover crashes kill more than 10,000 people each year across America. And, as CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports, rollover deaths are climbing as more people trade in their cars for high-riding, less stable pickup trucks and SUVs.

"It's the fastest growing form of fatalities in motor vehicles today," says Clarence Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety. "And it's because we have sport utility vehicles that handle differently and we need a real world test that distinguishes how they do in the real world."

That's precisely what's happening at the Vehicle Research and Test Center in Ohio. CBS News got a rare look at federal regulators developing a test that will ultimately be used to compare and rate the stability of all vehicles.

Currently cars and SUVs are rated for rollover risks based on mathematical calculations. Narrow vehicles that sit high off the ground are rated more likely to roll. But these tests may ultimately prove to be more precise by measuring how cars actually perform in real-driving maneuvers.

"We're all watching this very closely to see how these vehicles will perform in these motion tests," says Jeff Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

He says the tests will not trigger new regulations. But, publicizing rollover ratings will pressure car makers to improve stability.

"If they make vehicles that are prone to roll over, my hope is that people will not buy them, and they won't be able to sell them, and they'll have to make changes," he says. "This is the basic market forces at work."

Back at the testing center, Riley Garrott, of the NHTSA, continues his tests, looking for a threshold where SUVs become unstable.

The testing is expensive and painstakingly tedious.

And it could be model year 2005 before consumers have the real-world rollover ratings.

"The public needs the numbers because more people are being killed, we're getting more vehicles out there on the road with higher rollover characteristics, and we don't know which are the good performers and which are the bad performers," says Ditlow.

Regulators admit that the real world testing is overdue, but say automakers don't have to wait to make safety changes. And people can greatly improve their chances of surviving a rollover by simply buckling their seatbelts.