Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, raised the ire of automakers last month when he said he wouldn't buy his children an SUV that has been determined to be a rollover risk "if it was the last one on Earth."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called Wednesday's Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee hearing on SUV safety, asked Runge to clarify his comment. Runge said he meant only that consumers should make informed choices based on the experience of the driver and other factors.
"My answer was never about SUVs generally," Runge said. "We believe it is never appropriate to characterize a class of vehicles generally."
McCain, who said he and his family drive SUVs, said he is nevertheless skeptical about whether automakers can be trusted to improve safety of their vehicles without further regulation from Congress and NHTSA. Earlier this month, automakers joined with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to develop voluntary standards to help decrease fatalities when cars are struck by SUVs and light trucks.
McCain said it took government demands to make automakers include air bags and safety belts in their vehicles.
"You judge people by their history," McCain said. "Where is their credibility in establishing these voluntary vehicle standards?"
Officials from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Co. insisted that safety is a priority and that they can improve vehicles faster without regulations. It can take NHTSA up to four years to put new regulations in place, they said.
"Toyota's confident in the design of our SUVs," said Christopher Tinto, director of regulatory affairs for the company. "We never forget that our own families drive in these vehicles every day."
Runge said that NHTSA is watching automakers closely.
"We at NHTSA do not design cars and trucks," he said. "We depend upon those who do."