June 01, 1998 12:00 PM

Diana Diaz de Veer and her husband, Glenn, made their morning coffee and took the Sunday paper onto the back porch of their two-bedroom home in Pasadena, Calif. Enjoying the sunshine, Diana, then 35 and a physical therapist, opened the calendar section, while Glenn, a 44-year-old architect, turned to the sports pages. “We were just planning to have a nice day of relaxing,” Glenn remembers. At about 8:15 a.m., Diana gave her husband a peck on the cheek and climbed into her black 1992 Saab 900S to drive to church, as she did every Sunday.

Diana doesn’t remember the 1988 Range Rover slamming into the driver’s side of her car. (Jimmy Morris, 54, told police he was driving his sport utility vehicle at 35 mph when the Saab crossed in front of him at an intersection.) In that instant on May 4, 1997, the de Veers’ lives changed forever. Diana suffered a broken hip, severe head trauma and brain damage that put her in a coma for 3½ weeks. (Morris was not hospitalized.) A year after the accident, Diana still requires remedial speech and reading classes. She will probably never work as a physical therapist again.

“Whether Morris or de Veer went through a red light remains in dispute, but this is not simply a case of one driver blaming another. At least part of the fault for the severity of Diana’s injuries, the de Veers allege in a lawsuit for unspecified damages filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last month, rests with Land Rover, the manufacturer of Morris’s vehicle. According to the de Veers, the 4,300-lb. Range Rover, like most sport utility vehicles (SUVs), lacked the energy-absorbing front crumple zone found in passenger cars and rode so high that it passed over the 2,900-lb. Saab’s frame rails, designed to offer protection in side-impact crashes. As a result, they say, the heavy bar mounted across the Range Rover’s grill pushed the side of Diana’s car in more than a foot and may have struck her head.

The de Veers’ attorney, Arnold Schwartz, argues that SUVs pose an unreasonable risk to people in cars. “The weight, the height, the stiffness of the front end and the addition of cosmetic ‘jungle bars’ or ‘cow catchers’ all make sport utility vehicles a hazard,” says Schwartz, who defended automakers for years before becoming a plaintiffs’ attorney in 1982. (A spokesman for Land Rover declined to comment on the case, citing company policy on matters in litigation.) Schwartz says the de Veer case may be the first to challenge the design of SUVs. “This is not going to be an easy lawsuit,” he concedes. “We’re challenging the design of a whole industry, and a very profitable one.”

Indeed, U.S. auto manufacturers make much of their profits on light trucks—SUVs, pickups and minivans. But the mismatch on the road between many of these vehicles and cars is causing increasing concern among safety experts. “The growing market of SUVs [now 16 percent of new passenger-vehicle sales] has focused attention on the issue of size disparity,” says Adrian Lund, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Obviously, as more SUVs are sold, that makes it a more dangerous environment for the small-car driver.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has set up a working group to examine the issue. When it releases the results of a series of SUV-vs.-car crash tests next week, the data are expected to corroborate the dangers that analysts have found in real-world accident statistics: When an SUV strikes the driver’s side of an automobile, the car driver is three times more likely to die than if the striking vehicle were a midsize automobile.

Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, acknowledges the problem, but responds, “It has to be put in perspective. Crashes between SUVs and cars account for about 3 percent of [highway] deaths—about 600 a year. You could take all the SUVs off the roads tomorrow, and you’d probably still have 500 of those 600 deaths because the cars would be hit by other vehicles.”

Industry experts point out that SUVs actually have a lower accident rate than cars, in part because the former are driven mostly by parents and middle-aged drivers. “These things aren’t being driven by yahoos with a six-pack between their legs,” says Ford Motor Co. safety-data analyst Ernie Grush, “and they’re not involved in accidents at 2 in the morning, because they’re sitting in a drive-way then.” But Donald W. Reinfurt, deputy director of the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, warns that eventually used SUVs will be sold to younger, more accident-prone drivers. “The older the vehicle, the more crashes per mile,” he notes. “The brakes aren’t as good; the drivers aren’t as careful.” To avoid “tremendous carnage,” Reinfurt believes the fuel economy standards applied to cars should also be imposed on SUVs: “If SUVs had to abide by those standards, they would be lighter and it would help with safety.”

As it is, the overall death rates for occupants of SUVs and automobiles are about the same because people in the high-riding SUVs are 3½ times more likely to die in rollovers than people in midsize cars. The sport utilities’ height provides ground clearance for off-road use, but a study done for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler found that only 13 percent are ever taken off the pavement. Still, “the height is a major factor in terms of the fashion statement,” says Chris Cedergren, managing director of Nextrend, a California consulting firm that does work for the Big Three. “More than ever before, the auto industry has become the fashion industry. You put your clothes on in the morning; then you put your vehicle on. And a lot of people are buying these things for one reason only: They’re the hip thing to be seen in.” Lately though, Cedergren has noticed another reason: fear of being overmatched on the highway. Ads such as one touting the 5,557-lb. Lincoln Navigator as an “Urban Assault” vehicle may capitalize on a driver’s survival instinct. “They’re not going to run ads that say, ‘Buy one of our sport utility vehicles so you don’t get crushed by one,’ ” says Cedergren. “But they are appealing to that idea.”

The de Veers know something about being crushed by one. Released from the hospital in June, Diana stayed in a recuperative center until September, relearning how to read and speak. Medical and other expenses have exceeded $300,000, and the emotional costs are incalculable. The de Veers had hoped to start a family, but those plans have been put on hold while Diana tries to regain her faculties. “Every morning I wake up and ask Glenn what day it is, and then I record it so I can remember later,” she says. “I always make a mistake with the year and think this is 1989 instead of 1988.”

“It’s 1998,” Glenn says gently.

“A couple of times I’ve said we should just get a divorce,” sobs Diana. “All these problems I have, I feel like I’ve given them to him.”

“That’s not true,” says Glenn, putting his arm around her.

Every day, Glenn sees SUVs on the road. “I look at them and think, ‘Is that really necessary?’ ” he says. Yet he has thought of getting one too. “I’ve asked myself, ‘Why the heck aren’t we driving the biggest vehicle out there?’ How else are you going to protect yourself from these assault vehicles? You’ve got to get a bigger assault vehicle. But we can’t go there. Society can’t get into an arms race on our streets.”

James S. Kunen

Kurt Pitzer in Los Angeles, Alan Paul in Detroit, Lisa Kay Greissinger in New York City and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington

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