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WASHINGTON -- The government, which has been crash-testing vehicles for years, detailed its first plans Tuesday to conduct driving tests for rollover risk, an increasing danger as sport-utility vehicles grow in popularity.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a computer will drive vehicles through two maneuvers called J-turn and fishhook. Neither of the maneuvers is likely to occur in real life, but they are designed to be easily repeatable and to push the vehicle's limits.

The J-turn involves driving the vehicle up to 60 miles per hour in a straight line, then abruptly steering to the left or right. The fishhook will take the automobile in a straight line up to 50 miles per hour, then make a left followed by a sharp right.

Each maneuver will be conducted twice, once with a light load that includes just a test driver and instruments and once with a heavy load adding 175-pound test dummies in all the rear seating positions. Engineers are looking to see if the wheels tip off the ground.

Rollovers result in about 10,000 deaths and 27,000 serious injuries each year. In general, sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks have a higher risk of rolling over.

Congress ordered NHTSA to develop tests and a consumer education campaign to warn consumers about rollover risk after the Firestone tire recall two years ago. Thousands of people were killed and injured when their Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle rolled over after a Firestone tire failure.

NHTSA's testing and education program is designed to help consumers buy and pressure automakers to build safer vehicles. The agency tests dozens of models each year and rates them from one to five stars for how well they protect occupants during front and side-impact crashes. The results are published on NHTSA's Web site and automakers often boast when they get high marks in their advertising.

"Manufacturers will design their vehicles to do well in these tests because they know the results are important to their consumers," said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of technical policy for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, which has been pushing for a rollover road test since 1988.
 
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