Rollover Rating System Won’t Make Vehicles Safer, Forces Consumers to Protect Themselves

Jan. 9, 2001

Rollover Rating System Won’t Make Vehicles Safer,
Forces Consumers to Protect Themselves

New Rating System Is First Step in Long Road to Improved Safety; Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

(Read Public Citizen’s Comments to NHTSA on the new Consumer Information Rollover Rating System)

After 15 long years of discussion, the government has finally taken a small first step to alert consumers to the rollover risks posed by various vehicles on the market. However, the star rating program announced today by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a bare-bones measure that likely will do little to stem the 10,000 rollover-related deaths that occur each year on our nation s highways. This is because the government has not set a minimum standard, and no information about rollover risks will be provided to consumers when they buy cars. NHTSA’s new star rating system simply isn’t on the right road to advancing safer vehicles.

The new system is troubling in many aspects. First, it is purely informational, so manufacturers can choose to ignore it. NHTSA apparently didn’t want to burden the industry with an effective safety standard, so manufacturers will not have to move a single nut or bolt to make vehicles safer. Further, the program places the onus on consumers to conduct research and find the rollover ratings themselves. There is no requirement that manufacturers post the information on showroom vehicles.

Second, the test is “static” meaning that it is based solely on certain measurements, such as a vehicle’s center of gravity. Static tests are generally inadequate. Much better are “dynamic” tests, in which vehicles are test-driven. (Although dynamic tests are required by the recently passed TREAD Act, they won’t be done for another two years.) Dynamic tests can better assess a vehicle’s overall performance in real-life situations, such as when drivers swerve and brake.

What is most disturbing, though, is that most sports utility vehicles probably would not pass even a most basic rollover standard, a fact acknowledged by many in the auto industry who persuaded NHTSA to issue the watered-down star rating system. These industry representatives have said that such a standard could eliminate compact SUVs or require their substantial redesign.

NHTSA apparently has bought into this notion, deciding that because SUVs couldn’t pass a standard high enough to be effective, no standard should be created. NHTSA would rather ask consumers to try to protect themselves than force manufacturers to redesign unsafe vehicles. However, it clearly is feasible to redesign SUVs to make them safer; some safety-conscious manufacturers have already begun to do so.

In reality, then, this new star rating program will afford little additional protection to consumers. This is tragic because lives are at stake. NHTSA should develop an effective rollover standard that would ensure vehicles would be less prone to rolling over and would spare people from dying and being injured. Surely that’s not asking for the moon and the stars.

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