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Proposed Roof Crush Rule an Embarrassment; NHTSA Squanders Chance to Save Lives Lost Needlessly in Rollover Crashes

Nov. 21, 2005

Proposed Roof Crush Rule an Embarrassment; NHTSA Squanders Chance to Save Lives Lost Needlessly in Rollover Crashes

Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President*

The federal government appears poised to squander an ideal opportunity to save thousands of lives and reduce devastating injuries caused when vehicles roll over and roofs crush in.

It has been nearly 35 years since the current roof crush standard was issued. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in August announced a proposal to strengthen the standard, yet what it released is grossly inadequate and amounts to a junk science rule. In fact, 70 percent of existing vehicles already meet the new standard, and vehicle roofs would have to be only marginally stronger than they are today.

Rather than requiring a vehicle roof to withstand the force of 1.5 times the vehicle’s weight, which is the current standard, the proposed rule with other cutbacks effectively requires a roof to withstand just 1.64 times the vehicle weight, not 2.5 as NHTSA states. That’s a de minimus improvement.

So many improvements have been made in auto safety in 35 years. We know that feasible, light weight and cost-effective technology exists to make roofs much stronger. In fact, evidence in secret industry documents in NHTSA’s possession show that automakers are well aware of this technology, but most don’t use it. Yet the agency is refusing to require manufacturers to use it, or even to release these Volvo documents. The Volvo XC-90 is an excellent example of a current vehicle with the roof/head protection that could be in every vehicle sold.

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. Since the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire tragedies in 2000, 50,000 people have been killed in rollover crashes. It is unconscionable to allow these deaths and injuries to continue occurring if it is possible to stop them. Yet NHTSA’s proposal would save only 13 to 44 lives.

To make matters worse, the agency takes the position in the rulemaking notice that injured victims should not be able to sue manufacturers for injuries sustained from crushed roofs if the vehicles meet this minimal and paltry government standard. This is an attempt to 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. It also would burden the taxpayers with the costs of these crashes. This is an untenable proposition.

One of the agency’s most egregious oversights is that it ignores the fact that when a roof is weak, all the other safety systems – side air bags, safety belts, door latches, window glass and more – are compromised.

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

There are many other problems with NHTSA’s proposal:

  • It largely ignores the fact that a strong roof is crucial to preventing people from being ejected from vehicles that roll over because in most cases the window glass will not break, preventing ejection. Including the benefits of preventing ejection of nearly 4,000 people who are ejected annually would justify the small costs of a much more stringent standard.
  • 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 be 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 and occupants. The dolly test is already routinely used by auto manufacturers and is spelled out in FMVSS 208 as a voluntary standard, which the agency said in the 1970s it would formalize into a standard but never did.
  • The proposal fails to comply with an August 2005 congressional requirement for safety upgrades to both the driver and passenger sides, which requires that both sides of the roof be tested. Instead it 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 quarter turn to the far side occupant in the turns thereafter.
  • The agency proposal relies on windshields to support roofs in rollovers, but in real world rollover crashes, windshields shatter, drastically reducing in roof strength with the first roof contact with the ground.
  • 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.

This proposal falls tragically short. Ensuring that occupants can survive when vehicles roll over is probably the single most effective step that the automotive industry and NHTSA can take to reduce the unacceptable carnage on our highways. The agency should go back to the drawing board and develop a far more stringent and effective test.

Just one example of the inadequacy of the NHTSA proposal is Rev. Harris, here today. He is now a quadriplegic. His Ford 1987 Econoline van would have met the proposed roof crush standard.


*Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.