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Government, Auto Industry Drag Feet on Critical Roof Strength Standard, Squander Opportunity to Save Lives

Sept. 9, 2008

Government, Auto Industry Drag Feet on Critical Roof Strength Standard, Squander Opportunity to Save Lives

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen*

Detroit automakers have a long history of short-term thinking, fighting tooth and nail against improving their vehicles in order to make another buck today. For 20 years, they resisted the airbag standard, while thousands of people died needlessly. For 20 years, they have avoided making fuel-efficient passenger vehicles as competitors outclassed them, and now they seek a government bailout. For the past 20 years, they have raked in billions selling expensive SUVs and pickup trucks that are prone to rolling over while lacking obvious passenger protections. All the while, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been complicit in allowing up to 250,000 deaths and far more injuries in rollover crashes by not issuing an effective rollover injury prevention safety standard.

Today, we have demonstrated that a small, private group with little funding has achieved what the government with all its millions has resisted – developing a simple but highly effective, realistic rollover test to measure the likelihood of injury. The DOT, acting as Detroit’s first line of defense, first said that it could not conduct dynamic tests simulating real-world rollovers because they did not have the right test equipment. When Donald Friedman and his colleague Acen Jordon designed the Jordon Rollover System (JRS), without evaluating it, the DOT declared the JRS tests were not repeatable – an assertion disproved with repeated tests of the Subaru Forester. 

The DOT has wasted the past seven years making minor adjustments to the 1971 static test standard that measures only vehicle structure and even fails to measure the frontal roof area that causes the most harm. The static measurement of roof strength to vehicle weight   also can be misleading because, depending on other design factors, two vehicles with the same strength to weight ratio (SWR) can be dramatically different in the protection offered occupants in a rollover crash (as shown by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analysis and JRS testing). By contrast, unlike the SWR measure, the dynamic test evaluates potential injury based not only on vehicle structure but also on the influence of roof racks, belt performance, side window glazing breakage, side curtain air bag effectiveness and ejection potential.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we witnessed a surge of rollover deaths – from 1,400 a year to now more than 10,800 a year. While rollovers account for only 4 percent of vehicle crashes, they cause one-third of all occupant fatalities. While the DOT dithered, we saw the Bronco and Bronco II, the Suzuki Samurai, the Blazer and Ford Explorer kill more and more people in rollover crashes that should have been highly survivable. These vehicles and others built in compliance with the 1971 standard are a legacy to DOT’s inaction. They will be killer vehicles for 10 to 15 years – or even longer as the DOT embraces a rule that pleases the auto industry but ignores sound science.

In 2001, the DOT finally started to upgrade its roof strength standard, but the inadequacy of the proposed rule is revealed in the agency’s estimate that it would save 13 to 44 lives, which is just half of one percent of the annual rollover fatalities. And 68 percent of vehicles today already comply with the proposed standard.  

How many more families will have to live with the consequences of the DOT’s ineptitude? There are hundreds of thousands of victims and family members like Julie Lockwood-Steinberg of Houston, whose brother Tim Lockwood died when the roof of his Ford Explorer was crushed in a rollover, and the Rev. Lawrence Harris of New Jersey, who is a quadriplegic as a result of a rollover crash in a vehicle that met the government safety standard.

In 2005, Congress passed legislation requiring the agency to issue rules on roof crush and ejection prevention. These should be covered in one standard because when the roof does not crush, the side windows, which are so important to prevent ejection, do not break. Both are best measured in a dynamic test. But instead of one comprehensive safety standard for rollover protection, the agency is spending not only more money but more time issuing two inadequate standards. Even in terms of cost to the industry for testing, one standard is better than two.

In June 2008, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chair of the Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Insurance and Automotive Safety, urged the DOT to issue an effective standard, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) allocated $1 million dollars for dynamic testing to evaluate vehicles in rollover crashes.

The Congress gets it. Why doesn’t the DOT?

The roof crush standard the DOT will announce by Oct. 1 is going to be a static test that offers minimal improvement from the current standard that took effect in 1973. That’s unacceptable.

But there’s more.

In the preamble of this proposed rule, the agency asserts that any manufacturer whose vehicle complies with the standard should not be held liable for occupant injuries in that vehicle. While the agency has no authority to enforce this statement, it is a message to state courts to dismiss liability cases for such vehicles without regard to the harm people suffer.

Not only is this totally outside the agency’s jurisdiction, but to suggest that a totally inadequate standard should pre-empt claims by horribly injured consumers shows that the government is more concerned with protecting auto companies than the families who needlessly lose loved ones each day.

The DOT should not issue its proposal as a final standard but should go back to the drawing board. It has already caused enough harm, far more than in all the armed conflicts in which this country has been involved in the past 35 years. 

This is not a partisan issue. Both sides of the aisle have supported a stronger rollover safety standard. It is a life and death issue. We are going to pursue a dynamic testing standard until the DOT gets it right. The Congress, the next administration and/or the courts will be asked by consumers to right this wrong. 

* Note: Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.

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