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New Rollover Study Shows Federal Government’sRoof Strength Standard Will Not Protect Vehicle Occupants

Sept. 9, 2008

New Rollover Study Shows Federal Government’s Roof Strength Standard Will Not Protect Vehicle Occupants

Vehicles, Crash-Test Dummies Did Not Fare Well In Real-World Conditions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Six vehicles that passed the federal government’s roof strength standard did far worse when subjected to a real-world test that puts the vehicles and crash-test dummies through an actual rollover, according to the results of a new comparison released today by three auto safety groups.

In dramatic video released by the Center for Auto Safety, the Center for Injury Research (CfIR) and Public Citizen, crash-test dummies involved in the dynamic (real-world) tests performed by CfIR were exposed to traumatic impacts that would have been fatal or paralyzing to human occupants. The dummies suffered their “injuries” despite being restrained by seat belts and in vehicles that had receiving passing grades under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) existing roof strength standard.

The comparison, sponsored by the Santos Family Foundation, involved the 2007 Pontiac G6, 2006 Chrysler 300, 2007 Toyota Camry, 2007 Volkswagen Jetta, 2006 Honda Ridgeline and 2006 Hyundai Sonata, which were tested on the Jordan Rollover System (JRS), a device designed to dynamically test the rollover occupant protection performance of motor vehicles. The vehicles, which were donated by State Farm Insurance, are the same ones that performed well in NHTSA’s “static” test.

The study underscores the need for NHTSA to adopt a similar dynamic test for passenger vehicles and light trucks, rather than the current static method of testing, which tests the strength of a stationary, upright vehicle’s roof but disregards what happens to passengers during a rollover, as well as a rolling vehicle’s ability to withstand crash forces.

“NHTSA – complicit with Detroit auto companies – has wasted years considering a   static standard it estimates will save only 13 to 44 lives out of 10,800 rollover deaths annually,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said. “It has refused to use dynamic testing for a comprehensive standard to save thousands of lives and reduce head injury and ejection. The Congress, the next administration, and/or the courts will be asked by consumers to right this wrong.”

Instead of adopting a dynamic test, NHTSA has proposed a slight upgrade for the 1971 standard for vehicle roofs that relies solely on measuring the ability of the roof to resist 2.5 times the vehicle’s weight instead of the current 1.5 times. NHTSA, which is scheduled to release its final rule by Oct. 1, is continuing to endanger lives and doing little to reduce the more than 10,800 deaths a year in rollover crashes, said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

“After 35 years of rollover fatalities increasing eight-fold due to weak roofs and weak standards, it’s time to issue a dynamic roof crush standard to match the lifesaving dynamic standards NHTSA has for front and side impacts where occupant fatalities have decreased by 25 percent,” Ditlow said.

In its 2005 highway bill, Congress demanded that NHTSA write new performance standards that would 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.

NHTSA’s final rule should take into account not only roof strength, but the performance of safety belts, curtain air bags, door locks and latches, windows and roof racks. The agency must develop a dynamic test that mimics an actual rollover and takes into account passenger ejection and containment, said Donald Friedman, founder of t he Center for Injury Research. He also is a partner in Xprts, LLC, a California consulting firm.

“A light truck and a passenger car with the same static roof strength can have grossly different rollover occupant protection capability as revealed in our dynamic JRS tests,” Friedman said. “The federal government’s existing standard tests only roof structure performance, while dynamic tests measure injury potential in a rollover.”

Also, the proposed rule’s preamble contains disturbing language that says any manufacturer whose vehicle complies with the standard should not be held liable for occupant injuries in that vehicle.

“NHTSA’s rule, which it says would save less that half of one percent of the 10,800 annual rollover deaths, urges state courts to pre-empt consumer injury lawsuits involving vehicles meeting this do-nothing standard,” Claybrook said. “It reveals that NHTSA is more concerned with protecting auto companies than the families who needlessly lose loved ones each day.”

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Addendum: The primary purpose of the Center for Injury Research JRS tests is to compare the dynamic roof crush performance of 10 vehicles with the performance of the same vehicles under NHTSA’s static roof crush tests. Unlike the passenger cars that CfIR tested, the Honda Ridgeline has side-curtain air bags that are designed to deploy in a rollover. NHTSA did not deploy air bags in its static roof crush tests, and CfIR did not deploy them in the JRS tests of the Ridgeline. Even if the side-curtain air bags had been deployed in the JRS test, they would not have affected the catastrophic roof instrusion into the occupant compartment, and the restrained dummy still would have indicated severe injury from the roof intrusion. In rollovers, the side-curtain air bags are primarily designed to control ejection and perform well only in combination with a strong roof that resists serious intrusion in a rollover. For a number of years, the experts involved in these rollover tests, as well as other experts in the field, have provided extensive technical informaiton to vehicle manufacturers about the importance of research and design choices concerning the control of roof crush in rollover occupant protection.