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NHTSA’s Proposed Roof Crush Rule Grossly Inadequate, Fails to Adequately Protect People in Rollover Crashes

Nov. 21, 2005

NHTSA’s Proposed Roof Crush Rule Grossly Inadequate, Fails to Adequately Protect People in Rollover Crashes

Standard Represents Marginal Improvement in Roof Strength; 70 Percent of Vehicles Already Comply, Yet Thousands Die Annually

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A proposed roof crush rule – the first change in vehicle roof strength standards in more than three decades – is so grossly inadequate that 70 percent of existing vehicles already meet it. The proposed change would require vehicle roofs to be only marginally stronger than they are today.

The current standard requires a vehicle roof to withstand the force of 1.5 times the vehicle’s weight. Because of certain provisions in the proposed standard, the agency will effectively require a roof to withstand just 1.64 times the vehicle weight – a paltry improvement.

Rollover crashes kill 10,000 people each year, accounting for one-third of all occupant deaths in vehicle crashes. Many deaths and injuries that stem from rollover crashes occur when the roofs of vehicles crush in, killing or paralyzing the occupants of the vehicles. In many cases when the roof crushes, the windows of the vehicle crush or blow out, seat belt and side air bag systems fail, and doors spring open, causing people to be ejected and killed.

The current roof crush rule was issued in 1971. The agency originally called for testing both sides of the roof, but General Motors Corporation (GM) argued that testing both sides of the roof was unnecessary. Years later, it was revealed in litigation that GM had used NHTSA’s proposed two-sided test on six of its production model vehicles and that only one vehicle had passed. GM withheld its testing results from the agency but nevertheless argued for the one-sided test. NHTSA’s final rule called for testing just one side of the roof.

In 2000, after news of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire rollover tragedies broke, NHTSA began mulling over a strengthening of the roof crush rule. But its proposed changes, released five years later, would do little to change the status quo. Even NHTSA says its proposed rule will save only 13 to 44 additional lives annually, an admission that the proposal is de minimus. Since 2000, 50,000 Americans have died in rollover crashes, making this one of the largest single causes of deaths in the new century. Today is the deadline NHTSA set to receive comments on its proposed rule. A copy of Public Citizen’s comments is available here.

“NHTSA is squandering an unprecedented opportunity to save lives by reducing rollover deaths,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “This is an egregious betrayal of the public trust. It is technologically feasible and cost-effective to make vehicle roofs much, much stronger. The government has an obligation to require auto manufacturers to do so. It is unconscionable that the agency has punted.”

Internal auto industry documents in NHTSA’s possession show that auto manufacturers know the dynamics of rollover crashes and understand how, using feasible, light-weight and cost-effective technology, to make much stronger roofs. NHTSA should make these Volvo XC-90 documents public because they show how one small company led the way in rollover safety, Public Citizen said.

The proposed rule also contains a “pre-emption” provision that would prohibit people from suing manufacturers for injuries sustained from crushed roofs if the vehicles meet the government standard. This would effectively shut the courthouse doors on consumers and would remove incentives for manufacturers to make safe vehicles when minimal government standards are insufficient or outdated, or are not well enforced, Public Citizen argued. It also would burden the taxpayers with the costs of these crashes.

At a press conference today, the Rev. Lawrence Harris, a Pittsgrove, N.J., resident who is now a quadriplegic as a result of a rollover crash, denounced the new rule. The vehicle he was in when the 1997 crash occurred, a 1987 Ford Econoline van, would have passed the proposed new test. His injuries show how inadequate the proposed rule is.

“I have to live with the consequences of a government roof strength standard that is way too low,” Harris said. “It’s time for citizens like us to be heard and for the government to enact a law that forces auto manufacturers to build vehicles that are safer, stronger and will increase the chances of people walking away from an accident.”

NHTSA is proposing to increase the force that a vehicle’s roof must withstand in tests to 2.5 times the vehicle’s unloaded weight, up from the current 1.5 times. The increase is misleading, however, because NHTSA also has proposed changing the test requirements to allow greater roof intrusion. According to an analysis by Steve Batzer, a professional engineer and director of the Engineering Institute in Farmington, Ark., the average required increase in roof strength under the proposed rule amounts to requiring a roof to withstand just 1.64 times the vehicle weight, as measured by the current standard.

“This proposed standard does not meet the public’s expectation that solid science is used as the basis of new safety standards,” Batzer said. “Further, it does not ensure that the solid majority of average-height, belted occupants can be protected from significant roof crush in the event of a high-speed rollover.”

The agency contends that strengthening roofs will add weight to vehicles and increase the propensity for rollover, but this is a canard, Claybrook said. The agency has been unable to document that an increase in vehicle weight would increase the risk of rollovers. Further, manufacturers can strengthen roofs without adding weight, because many light-weight materials exist.

Other key problems with the proposed roof crush rule include:

  • It largely ignores the fact that a strong roof is crucial to preventing people from being ejected from vehicles that roll over. Including the benefits of preventing ejection would justify a much more stringent standard on a cost-benefit basis.
  • The new test does not apply force to the roof in a manner that ensures injuries would be prevented in a real-world crash. It continues to use a static test in which weight is pressed on one side of the roof. Instead, NHTSA should require a dynamic “dolly roll” test, in which vehicles are rolled off a fast-moving dolly, to simulate the injuries that occur in real-world crashes. This is the best way to test what happens in rollover crashes to a vehicle’s roof, windows, belt system, side air bags and occupants. The dolly test is already routinely used by auto manufacturers and is spelled out in FMVSS 208 (air bags, belts) as a voluntary standard since the 1970s.
  • The proposal fails to comply with an August 2005 congressional mandate for safety upgrades to both the driver and passenger sides that requires both sides of the roof be tested. Instead NHTSA calls for just one side to be tested. This measures what happens only in the first two quarter turns of a rollover. But the most serious injuries occur in the third and subsequent quarter turns.
  • The agency proposal relies on windshields to support roofs in rollovers, but in real world rollover crashes, windshields shatter, drastically reducing roof strength.
  • The cost-benefit analysis is riddled with errors.
  • The proposal lacks a scientific basis. The agency looks at vehicles after rollover crashes, analyzing roof intrusion, rather than analyzing what happens during a crash. Roofs are elastic and spring back, so analyzing post-crash intrusion is irrelevant to understanding how occupants are injured.