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April 19, 2004

Safety Belts Often Fail to Protect Vehicle Occupants in Rollover Crashes, Public Citizen Report Shows

Increased Belt Use Has Not Slowed Growing Number of Fatalities on U.S. Roads; Belts Should Be Redesigned

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Flaws in the design and performance of safety belts leave vehicle occupants vulnerable to serious and often fatal injuries in rollover crashes, a new Public Citizen report shows. There is no federal safety standard for belt performance in rollover crashes, and the auto industry has done little to design belts to fully protect occupants in these crashes. Public Citizen is calling Congress to enact vehicle safety measures in S.1072, a comprehensive approach to making rollover crashes survivable.

As rollover-prone SUVs proliferate on U.S. roads, fatalities in rollover crashes have climbed to one-third of all vehicle occupant fatalities, or 10,600 each year. The three risks of rollover – roof crush, ejection from the vehicle and belt failure – combine to make rollover crashes unnecessarily deadly. All three of the risks compromise or destroy occupants’ survival space during a crash and are inter-related. For example, roof crush becomes more deadly as seat belt use increases.

The auto industry continues to blame drivers and passengers for failing to use safety belts, but belt use is at an historic high and rollover fatalities are not abating.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) actively promotes belt use and is requesting $150 million for this program next year. But its most recent regulatory move on safety belts came in 1999, when – under heavy pressure from automakers – it removed a portion of its 1967 standard that described a belt’s required position in relation to the occupant’s pelvis in a rollover crash.

"Safety belts are currently the most important safety feature that would keep people secure and inside the vehicle during a rollover crash," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "It is inexcusable to install belts that do not do the job. The auto industry has known for decades how to design belts to better protect occupants in rollover crashes but has failed to do so."

Statistics show that while safety belts usually keep occupants from being completely ejected from a vehicle during a rollover, they often allow partial ejection, which is deadly. Moreover, six of 10 occupants who suffer serious or fatal injuries in rollovers inside the vehicle were wearing a safety belt, according to NHTSA.

Public Citizen’s report also pointed out a troubling discrepancy between observed belt use and rollover fatalities. Average belt use by SUV occupants is slightly higher than passenger car occupants, but recorded belt use by SUV occupants killed in rollovers is much lower than passenger car occupants killed in rollovers. The discrepancy suggests that some SUV occupants may come out of belts during the crash, or the belts may otherwise fail.

The report, Rolling Over on Safety: The Hidden Failures of Belts in Rollover Crashes, describes ways in which belt failures expose occupants to serious and deadly injury:

  • Most belt systems lack rollover sensors that would engage pretensioners and fail to pull slack in quickly enough to prevent occupants from contacting hard vehicle surfaces.
  • Current standard belt systems permit lateral movement of occupants’ heads and bodies during rollovers, allowing impact with roof pillars or partial or full ejection of occupants through side windows or weakened doors.
  • Belt straps are anchored to the door frame instead of the seat, undercutting the belts’ effectiveness when the frame or door is deformed or torn off during a rollover.
  • Lap belts are anchored behind occupants’ hips, rather than directly below. Belts are not effective in preventing people in rollovers from coming up out of the belts and toward the roof. It would be better for belts to wrap across the hips.
  • Some safety belts unlatch during rollovers, which occurs during interaction with the vehicle interior or occupants that unlock the belt buckle, leaving occupants without the belt’s protection.

The technologies and simple design improvements to enhance belt performance already exist, the report said. Manufacturers could and should install pretensioners to secure occupants in the seat; rollover sensors to prompt the tightening of safety belts at the start of a roll; belt buckles that will not unlatch; and belt retractors that prevent the belt from spooling out. Other simple suggested design changes include adjusted belt anchor points to reduce occupants’ vertical movement, restraints integrated into the seat and tightened shoulder belt adjusters. Also needed for protection in rollover crashes are stronger roofs, interior padding of the roof, side head air bags and improved door locks and latches.

"Protecting consumers in rollover crashes should be at the top of NHTSA’s priority list," said C. Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., attorney and co-author of the report. "As today’s report shows, roof crush is not the only danger in rollover accidents. Current safety belt systems are designed to provide protection in frontal crashes, but victims of rollovers are not being adequately protected and, in fact, have a false sense of security about the effectiveness of belts in rollovers. The industry is unwilling to voluntarily incorporate rollover-safety technology in a timely manner."

Safety provisions in the NHTSA reauthorization bill, S.1072, passed by the U.S. Senate in February, address the risks of rollover, including safety belt performance, requiring NHTSA to issue safety standards in a type of crash long ignored by automakers. However, the U.S. House did not include the safety provisions before passing its bill. The bills will now go to conference to reconcile the versions.

"Consumers are told again and again to buckle up to save lives," Claybrook said. "Manufacturers and the government should be doing everything in their power to ensure that we really can rely on belts to protect people in rollover crashes."

Three people who have had family members killed or seriously injured in rollover crashes involving belt failure joined Public Citizen today at a press conference to release the report. Miriam Cintron, of West Palm Beach, Fla., lost her daughter in a 1997 crash. "Angie was robbed of her future because the manufacturer failed to put a safe vehicle on the market," Cintron said. "It’s far easier to blame the voiceless victim than to take the necessary steps to decrease fatalities."

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