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Public Citizen Urges Congress to Pass New Auto Safety Standards

March 18, 2004

Public Citizen Urges Congress to Pass New Auto Safety Standards

House of Representatives Should Address Rollover Prevention and Protection, 15-Passenger Van Safety and More

WASHINGTON, D.C. – By enacting important new safety measures and standards, Congress could prevent thousands of deaths each year in automobile crashes, Public Citizen Joan Claybrook today told lawmakers in written testimony. The testimony was submitted to the U.S. House Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which held a hearing on reauthorization legislation for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 2 and 33, and fatalities have been increasing in recent years. In 2002, 42,815 people were killed on the highways, the most since 1990. Congress in 2000 enacted legislation that improved tire safety standards but did not improve standards in other areas, Claybrook wrote.

“Fixing the tires was not even half of the battle, and many hazards remain unaddressed,” Claybrook said. “Congress now needs to pass legislation that will establish rollover prevention and protection standards, anti-ejection standards and other crucial, long-overdue safeguards. It is time to ask American automakers to build a safer, better vehicle.”

Sections of the Senate-passed reauthorization bill, which were sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), mandate the changes that Claybrook is asking House members to enact.

Claybrook warned lawmakers not to accept the arguments of the auto industry against these new protections. Safety provisions in the Senate-passed bill target areas where the most lives could be saved and where the remedies are feasible and reasonable, and decades have passed without action, she said.

Claybrook, who was administrator of NHTSA from 1977 to 1981, highlighted measures the House should enact. They include:

  • Rollover prevention and survival. Poorly designed SUVs that are prone to rolling over – and deadly to occupants when they do – are a cause for the increasing numbers of deaths on U.S. roads in recent years. Rollover fatalities accounted for 82 percent of the total fatality increase from 2001 to 2002. NHTSA recently has implemented a consumer information program and dynamic testing program to indicate how a vehicle will perform on the road, but both are inadequate.

    Rollover crashes should be survivable, but SUVs are often built with weak roofs that crush as the vehicle rolls, seriously injuring or killing those in the vehicle. The current roof crush standard is woefully out of date and tests only one side of the roof, thereby permitting manufacturers to make vehicles that are deadly in real crashes. NHTSA estimates that a more rigorous standard would save 1,400 lives each year. Claybrook urged the House to require a safety standard for rollover prevention, a dynamic test that would test both sides of the roof and a set of standards that would make rollover crashes more survivable.

  • Vehicle compatibility in crashes. In December 2003, auto manufacturers announced that they would be implementing a voluntary program to address problems of incompatibility. SUVs and pickups act like battering rams in crashes with passenger cars, increasing the likelihood that occupants of the car will be killed. Historically, however, voluntary programs have done little to improve auto safety because there is no accountability or transparency in the process.

    Instead of relying on the industry’s program, Claybrook asked lawmakers to create standards the public can rely on that address bumper height, vehicle weight, consumer awareness and other compatibility issues that the public could rely on.

  • Safeguards for 15-passenger vans. These vans, popular with church groups, schools and other organizations, fall outside the scope of many federal motor vehicle safety standards but are highly dangerous and prone to roll over when fully loaded. NHTSA has issued consumer advisories on the dangers but has not taken steps to improve the design of the vehicles. Congress should mandate that 15-passenger vans be subject to safety standards and dynamically tested for rollover and roof crush, Claybrook said.
  • Child safety in and around vehicles. During the 1990s, more than 90,000 children were killed and 9 million injured in motor vehicle crashes, often because they were improperly restrained. Claybrook asked lawmakers to address the “safety gap” of children who are too large for federally regulated child seats but too small to be protected by adult seat belts.

Another serious risk to children is vehicle backover, where a child is accidentally backed over, usually by family members. Large blind spots in SUVs, minivans and pickups increase this risk, but the bill would require new technologies, such as cameras and sensors, to be studied.

“We know what the problems are, and we have the technologies to engineer safer cars,” Claybrook said. “Safety rules cannot continue to lag so far behind.”

Click here to read Claybrook’s testimony.