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Bush Administration’s Proposed Roof Crush Rule Does Little to Save Lives, Public Citizen Tells Congress

June 4, 2008

Bush Administration’s Proposed Roof Crush Rule Does Little to Save Lives, Public Citizen Tells Congress

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook Tells Senate Panel That Federal Agency Should Return to the Drawing Board

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) proposed performance standard for vehicle roofs is woefully inadequate and will do little to reduce the more than 10,500 deaths from rollover crashes each year, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told a U.S. Senate panel today.

NHTSA should return to the drawing board and rewrite its proposed standard to take into account not only roof strength, but the performance of safety belts, curtain air bags, door locks and latches, and windows. The agency must develop a dynamic test that mimics an actual rollover and takes into account passenger ejection and containment, Claybrook told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The current test is static, meaning that it involves merely pressing weight against the corner of the driver’s side roof while the vehicle remains upright and stationary.

“Rollover crashes should be highly survivable,” testified Claybrook, who served as NHTSA administrator from 1977 to 1981. “To say this is a national crisis ignores the fact that we have known this was a problem for almost 20 years, and yet, I am back before the Senate asking that you revisit this issue again.”

By proposing a roof crush rule that fails to require manufacturers to test both the driver and passenger sides of vehicles and does not even consider dynamic testing, NHTSA has ignored a congressional mandate to reduce rollover deaths, which have surged with the popularity of top-heavy sport utility vehicles. In its 2005 highway bill, Congress demanded that NHTSA write new performance standards that would improve vehicle stability, reduce passenger ejections and increase roof strength.

The legislation also clearly called for testing both sides of the vehicle roof. Studies show that the initial impact of a rollover can break the windshield, which can substantially weaken the other side of the roof, greatly increasing the chance it will crumple and injure the occupants.

Instead, NHTSA’s proposed rule relies solely on measuring the ability of the driver’s side roof to resist 2.5 times the vehicle’s weight, which is an increase from the existing standard but does very little by itself to improve safety, Claybrook said. NHTSA estimates that its proposal will save, at most, only 476 lives a year.

“These estimates show that NHTSA has neither looked at the problem of rollover fatalities in a new light nor made a real attempt to correct the problem,” Claybrook said. “In the face of more than 10,500 fatalities a year, an ‘upgraded’ rule that barely addresses 5 percent of the fatalities is just gross negligence.”

Until the agency can issue a dynamic crash test standard, it should provide consumers with information about the roof strength of vehicles on the market using an upgraded static consumer information test, as well as highlight whether other safety equipment in the vehicle, such as safety belt pretensioners and side curtain airbags, are designed to operate in rollover crashes. This will allow consumers to make an assessment of the roof strength of vehicles on the market until a dynamic test is implemented, Claybrook said.

READ Claybrook’s testimony.