A public relations firm with automaker clients reportedly is trying to derail proposed stricter Californian state clean air regulations with ads warning that the first-in-the-nation rules would force drivers to abandon SUVs for smaller cars that could endanger their lives.

The Associated Press (AP) said the ads conflict with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data released earlier this month that found SUV drivers were slightly more likely to die in accidents than people driving cars, and almost three times as likely to die in rollovers. SUVs, light trucks and vans also were far more likely to kill or seriously injure people in accidents than cars, the NHTSA found.

The report said the print and radio ads are sponsored by the Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America, a group purchased two years ago by the Washington, DC-based public relations firm ‘Strat@comm’

The campaign reportedly features clowns who say the regulations would pack drivers into cars like clowns at the circus.

Ron Defore, an owner of ‘Strat@comm’ who acts as a spokesman for SUVOA, told AP the federal data unfairly grouped older SUVs with newer, safer models.

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“Unfortunately you even have people at NHTSA now who are anti-SUV,” Defore, who served as NHTSA director of public and consumer affairs in the mid-1980s, reportedly said, adding: “You can cut the data any way you want.”

AP said the California Air Resources Board is scheduled to vote on September 23 on rules that would limit greenhouse gases from vehicles beginning in 2009. The rules call for smaller engines and other technological changes to cut emissions by 25% for cars and light trucks, and about 18% for larger trucks and SUVs.

Defore reportedly said studies by the insurance industry have shown that smaller cars fare worse in accidents than SUVs, and past trends toward smaller vehicles have caused up to 50,000 traffic deaths – “about as many people as we lost in the Vietnam War.”

According to the Associated Press, environmentalists derided SUVOA as a phony grassroots, or ‘AstroTurf’ organisation.

“Clearly SUVOA is an industry front group,” Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, told the news agency. “They pay AstroTurf groups to make claims that they’re too embarrassed to make themselves. This group is clearly fact-challenged.”

Defore reportedly said the group has 23,000 supporters and raises money from donations and banner ads on its website. ‘Strat@comm’ counts Daimler Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and auto industry trade groups among its clients.

Regulators estimated the state’s new clean air proposals would initially add about $US292 to the cost of a car or small truck, and $308 to the cost of a large pickup or SUV, AP noted, adding that several other states and Canada are expected to adopt the emissions rules.

California makes up about 10% of the national auto market, and the new rules could lead automakers to voluntarily reduce the size of their vehicles, the Associated Press said.