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Innovative Roof Crush Test Proves You Can Buy Vehicles That Can Protect You in Rollover Crashes

Dec. 12, 2006

Innovative Roof Crush Test Proves You Can Buy Vehicles That Can Protect You in Rollover Crashes

Auto Safety Groups Reveal Dynamic, Real-World Test That Industry Doesn’t Want You to See and Government Won’t Require

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen today unveiled the innovative Jordan Rollover System (JRS), a superior test device for analyzing vehicle roof strength and rollover crash protection under real-world conditions, in a press conference at the George Washington University.

The demonstration of the JRS included a video of 10 crash tests conducted at 15 mph in 2006 in California by the JRS developers that showcased one production vehicle that performed well (the Volvo XC90) and others that performed poorly. Over the past five years, validation and research and crash tests have been conducted using the JRS system. The groups released the first detailed dynamic roof crush test results of the Volvo XC90 SUV, which has a stronger roof and performed well compared to other vehicles. The work was conducted under a grant from the Santos Family Foundation and with donations of Volvo XC90s from State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company.

These tests prove that safer vehicles are on the market that can withstand the forces of rollover crashes and protect the occupants. Information about the XC90’s performance in rollover crashes was previously unavailable because Volvo kept its own detailed test results secret under pressure from the Ford Motor Co., which purchased Volvo in 1999.   

Rollovers account for only four percent of crashes but represent 35 percent of all vehicle occupant fatalities, needlessly killing 10,800 and seriously injuring more than 16,000 people per year. Rollover crashes could be more survivable if vehicles had stronger roofs, but the auto industry has vigorously opposed any improvement to the 1971 roof strength standard, even though its engineers know the importance of roof strength in surviving rollover crashes.

To address this need, the JRS was designed and built by Acen Jordan, a renowned California-based test device maker, and Donald Friedman, an engineer and founder of California-based Xprts LLC. In the test, the vehicle is mounted on an axis that permits it to roll. A portion of roadway is run underneath the vehicle as it is rotated and dropped so that its roof strikes the road as it would in a rollover. The vehicle is then caught so that it will sustain no further damage. Subsequent rolls can be conducted by resetting and running the JRS test again. Unlike tests used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to test roof crush resistance, the JRS allows two sequential roof-to-ground contacts. JRS tests are realistic and highly repeatable.

Dynamic tests – those that put a vehicle in motion to mirror real-world crashes – provide the best measure of a vehicle’s capability of protecting occupants in a rollover. The JRS also can test the effectiveness of seat belts, side curtain air bags, window retention and door latching, and can lead to better vehicle design to prevent ejection of occupants. NHTSA uses dynamic tests for frontal and side crash standards, but not for its roof strength standard.

In a rollover crash, the roof provides the primary occupant protection. If the roof collapses, seat belts may become slack and windows may shatter. Occupants may be crushed by the roof or they may be thrown from the vehicle, the two major causes of serious to fatal rollover injuries. NHTSA is in the process of issuing a roof strength standard for rollover safety as required by SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 highway bill. However, its proposed rule is little better than the current 35-year-old standard, in which a modest force is applied to only one side of the roof of a stationary vehicle.

The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen maintain that all vehicles should be required to pass a dynamic, repeatable test such as the JRS to assess vehicle performance in conditions that closely match real-world rollover crashes and can be used to evaluate the key systems for occupant protection: the roof, safety belts, side window integrity, side curtain air bags and door latches.

“The JRS compares the injury and ejection probability of vehicles in rollovers and can definitively identify vehicle safety component defects and their causal relationship to death and injury in rollover crashes,” said Friedman.

“Ford has obtained protective orders in 24 courts prohibiting the public from seeing what we released today – dynamic roof crush tests that show Volvo XC90 occupants escape serious injury in multiple rollover crashes while Ford Explorer occupants suffer serious injury,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

“For 35 years, the auto industry has allowed hundreds of thousands of its customers to needlessly die and suffer catastrophic injury in rollover crashes because of weak roofs that crush in on the occupants,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “The 1927 Ford Model A had a stronger roof than most of today’s cars. The federal government has a statutory and moral obligation to ensure that all vehicles have strong, protective roofs that do not crush occupants’ heads.”

Since 1999, Volvo has been a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company. Ford Explorers, which have very weak roofs, killed more than 300 occupants in rollovers resulting from defective Firestone tires in the late 1990s. The Explorer has been the subject of hundreds of successful product liability lawsuits resulting from rollover injuries and deaths. Since the introduction of the Volvo XC90, Ford has actively suppressed technical information on Volvo’s successful rollover occupant protection program and the rollover performance of its XC90.

In 2004, Ford successfully urged a Florida court to seal documents from a rollover case that ruled against the company over fatal injuries caused by the Ford Explorer SUV. The documents showed that throughout the late 1990s, Ford successively weakened the roof of its Ford Explorer and that the vehicle had an extremely low margin of safety in rollover crashes. Testing documents from Volvo also demonstrated that a strong roof can protect occupants in a rollover, and that, in developing the XC90 SUV, Volvo used a much stronger dynamic test to examine roof strength and the interaction of safety systems in a rollover. Although the key documents had already been publicized in news reports throughout the country and legally obtained by many advocacy organizations, Volvo threatened to sue Public Citizen if it disseminated them. Public Citizen filed a legal motion in the Florida court in December 2005 to unseal the documents; the case is still pending.

The auto industry has long balked at any federal requirement for stronger vehicle roofs. A 2005 report publicized by Public Citizen revealed that auto industry data showed that automakers have misled government regulators and the public by claiming that roof strength and injuries in rollover crashes are unrelated. The report, written by Martha Bidez, Ph.D., of Bidez Associates, debunked what some auto manufacturers had said for years: that in rollover crashes, people sustain head and neck injuries when they dive into the roofs of their vehicles, not when the roofs crush into the people’s heads. Automakers have made this claim to argue against government requirements for stronger roofs on vehicles and to shield themselves from liability in lawsuits brought by families of rollover crash victims.

In addition, Friedman has reanalyzed the data from dynamic rollover tests conducted by General Motors in the 1980s to show that there is no basis for the theory in which an occupant’s head and neck are expected to restrain an occupant in a rollover rather than the safety belts. The underlying data and film from these GM tests were hidden from the public until 2005 while GM engineers published papers claiming that they had proved that roof crush was not responsible for occupant injuries. Xprts-LLC and the Center for Injury Research have conducted more than 50 tests of contemporary vehicles using the JRS. The Volvo XC90 is the first vehicle to show good roof crush resistance in these tests. JRS tests have also shown that a vehicle with poor roof crush resistance can be easily modified to provide minimal rollover roof crush with the addition of minor, low cost improvements in roof structure.

To view the live press conference and watch the video demonstration of the JRS tests, click here.

To read all of the statements, click here. !!!

For more information on roof crush safety standards and rollover crashes, click here.