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NHTSA Rollover Program Is Inadequate

Feb. 4, 2004

NHTSA Rollover Program Is Inadequate

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

The new rollover ratings issued today by the federal government start the ignition but don’t get the car out of the driveway. First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has never set a minimum stability standard, so vehicles can be perilously tippy – earning just two or three of five possible NHTSA stars – and still be sold. Second, the existing roof crush standard is wholly inadequate and must be upgraded. Third, this information about how likely select vehicles are to roll over is now available only on the Department of Transportation Web site – not on the window sticker.

It is a positive step that the new ratings for these 22 vehicles are now based on road tests that simulate emergency maneuvers in addition to calculations about how rollover-prone vehicles are. A dynamic test is an improvement because it will allow future tests to reflect safety enhancements from vehicle stability technologies.

However, the star ratings are misleading. Two stars may be interpreted as a good or safe rating. However, a vehicle that receives two stars has a 30 to 40 percent chance of rolling over in an emergency maneuver. A vehicle that earns just one star has a greater than 40 percent chance of rolling over in that maneuver. A vehicle that earns one or two stars is not safe and should not be on the road.

There are ways to bolster this consumer information program. The first is contained in NHTSA reauthorization legislation (S. 1978) scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor next week. The bipartisan measure, sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), would require the government to establish a minimum rollover prevention standard. This would ensure that dangerously rollover-prone vehicles would not be allowed on the road in the future. The bill also requires a new standard for vehicles that do roll over to protect occupants from death and injury with such critical improvements as stronger roofs, side head air bags, safety belts that tighten during a rollover, and improved side window glazing. A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), would require the star rating information to be placed on new vehicle window stickers, so the information is readily available to potential buyers at the dealership. Congress should pass these bills. In the meantime, automakers should focus on improving the design of vehicles to ensure they do not roll over and that people will survive if they do.

* Note: Joan Claybrook was NHTSA Administrator from 1977-1981.