Consumer Information equals Rollover Prevention
Under the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, NHTSA must develop a dynamic test and consumer information program on rollover propensity, or the pre-crash likelihood that a vehicle will begin to rollover in an emergency maneuver.
While the TREAD Act requires only a consumer information program under the auspices of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) a dynamic rollover propensity minimum standard, rather than a consumer information program, is sorely needed.
NCAP is no replacement for a minimum standard and functions best where a minimum standard already exists because it creates rewards for high performers while assuring that, with a standard, every consumer has access to a basic level of safety. NCAP information is only available through the NHTSA web site, limiting the information to web-savvy consumers. In addition, NCAP information only covers some 40 or so vehicles per year.
Comparative safety information should instead be available at the point-of-sale, when consumers are making purchase decisions, as is information on gas mileage and warranty information, etc. Every manufacturer should be required to test the vehicle using a NHTSA test protocol and to post the results on the vehicle windshield, so that results are available for every make and model.
The auto industry has argued that even a de minimus rollover standard would eliminate SUVs as a class, without addressing what that may say about the safety of these vehicles. NHTSA has been afraid to enact meaningful requirements for SUVs because they are the true "cash cows" of Detroit, providing a disproportionate share of the domestic industry’s profits.
If this concern is accurate, the agency could give manufacturers five years lead time on a redesign, as most vehicles have a 5-year design cycle. Skepticism may be warranted, however, because Ford’s public relations nightmare with the Explorer caused Ford to re-design the Model Year 2002 four-door Explorer to be far less rollover–prone in six months by widening the wheel base to provide a greater margin of safety.
We note that Ford, very irresponsibly, did nothing to improve the tippiness of the two-door Explorer, while launching a big marketing campaign about the re-design of the four-door. The two-door has a much higher driver death rate; yet consumers might be misled into thinking Ford has fixed the problem on all of their vehicles.
The remedy is for the agency to develop a reliable dynamic test to use as the basis for a basic standard for rollover propensity. The centrifuge test developed by the University of Michigan researchers shows some promise. Consumers should not be subjected to a vehicle that, in emergency maneuvers or when off-road, will suddenly tip over and become uncontrollable.