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Rollover Deaths Were Preventable; Government Needs to Require Crashworthy SUVs

June 19, 2001

Rollover Deaths Were Preventable; Government Needs to Require Crashworthy SUVs

WASHINGTON, D.C. As lawmakers today delve into the Ford-Firestone tragedy, a larger issue needs to be addressed: Rollover crashes are dangerous, but they need not be deadly. Many of those who were killed and injured in Ford-Firestone crashes didn t have to lose their lives and limbs. And once again, the federal regulatory agency that oversees the companies has failed the American public, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said.

That is because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under constant pressure from auto manufacturers doesn t require companies to design vehicles in a way that will help people survive rollover crashes. As a result, auto companies that for years have opposed the issuance of key safety standards have seen their customers die needlessly. Claybrook submitted written testimony to two House subcommittees investigating the tragedy.

“Ford and Firestone are learning the hard way that even though they may be able to persuade government regulators not to be tough, safety is what the public wants,” Claybrook said. “Now they re paying the consequences for not having made safer products.”

Ford and Firestone have recently engaged in a very public and bitter spat, with each blaming the other for the nearly 200 deaths and more than 700 injuries that have occurred in Ford-Firestone crashes. Both are right Firestone produced a faulty tire, as Ford has said. And Ford manufactured and zealously marketed its Explorer despite knowing it was prone to rolling over, like its precursor, the Bronco II, Claybrook said.

However, an overlooked issue is NHTSA s failure to issue key rollover crashworthiness standards. The Explorer (and most other SUVs) was not designed to protect its passengers so they could survive a rollover crash a fact Ford knew, Claybrook said. When the Explorer rolls over, the roof crushes inward, leading to devastating head and neck injuries. The sides can buckle inward, the windows splinter and the occupants can be tossed about the cabin or ejected. The human damage caused is barbaric and unnecessary, Claybrook said. Race car drivers are frequently in rollover crashes, yet they often walk away unscathed because their cars have roll cages, they wear five-point seat belts and their heads are protected.

Automakers should be made to install similar safety systems in sport utility vehicles (SUVs) as well as other vehicles, Claybrook said. NHTSA should set dynamic standards for roof strength and should require manufacturers to install pre-tension belts that hold people in place during rollover crashes, seat and door structures that don t fail, advanced glazing safety glass in side windows, and side-impact air bags, ceiling air bags or other extra padding. Currently, no such federal requirements exist.

Further, NHTSA has never set a limit on how unstable a vehicle may be. Automakers can make a vehicle as rollover-prone as they want; no federal rule exists to stop them. The agency last year produced a toothless rating system, but it requires nothing of manufacturers. This absence of a rollover standard has fostered an entire class of popular but dangerously unstable vehicles.

“We need to move beyond the finger-pointing,” Claybrook said. “Lawmakers need to direct NHTSA to issue these standards, so we can avoid another tragedy like this one.”