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Seat Belt Failures in Rollover Crashes Cost Thousands of Lives and Injuries

April 19, 2004

Seat Belt Failures in Rollover Crashes Cost Thousands of Lives and Injuries

Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Thirty-seven years ago, the federal government established the first standards for safety belts in motor vehicles. At the time, rollover crashes were a relatively small subset of crashes. No longer. Today, primarily because of the proliferation of SUVs, some 10,600 people a year die in rollover crashes – fully a third of all occupant deaths.

To deflect the blame from the design of their SUVs, automakers continue to claim that vehicle occupants are killed in rollovers because they are not wearing seat belts. That is simply not true. As this new report shows, thousands of lives are needlessly lost in rollovers despite the use of seat belts. In fact, 22,000 occupants wearing belts died in rollovers between 1992 and 2002. Yet there has never been a federal requirement that automakers test their seat belts to find out how they perform in rollovers. The time for this has long since passed.

We are now seeing historic highs in the use of safety belts. The latest government surveys estimate that belts are used by 75 percent of motorists. This is wonderful news. But because of the great increase in the number of SUVs, which roll over at a far higher rate than cars, highway fatalities are rising for the first time in a decade. In 2002, 42,815 Americans lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes – an increase of 1.5 percent from the previous year and the highest fatality count in more than a decade. Rollover deaths accounted for 82 percent of that increase.

Seat belts simply are not doing enough to protect vehicle occupants in rollover crashes. About 2,000 people each year die in rollover crashes even though they are belted – and about 400 of those are partially or totally ejected. Ejection while wearing a seat belt should happen rarely, if at all. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now estimates that belted occupants represent more than half of all deaths and injuries in roof-crush rollovers.

The fact is that rollovers not only are largely preventable through design changes, they also should be highly survivable, because the forces involved are generally much lower than in other types of collisions. The reason we have so much carnage from rollovers is because of the design choices that manufacturers have made and the lack of adequate federal standards to force better designs. Seat structures are not designed to keep occupants in place during a rollover, and vehicle roofs are so weak that they collapse, crushing the heads and spines of occupants. As a result of collapsing roofs, windshields and side windows break, providing ejection portals and further weakening the roof and side structures. And finally, outdated, inadequate belt systems fail.

In light of the escalating deaths, we are calling on Congress to enact the vehicle safety provisions in Title IV of S.1072, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – or SAFETEA. It would require NHTSA to issue comprehensive rollover crashworthiness standards to improve the performance of seat belts in rollovers. These standards should include requirements for belt pretensioners, side curtain air bags, gyroscopic rollover sensors for side air bags and pretensioners, new lap belt anchorage points that are more directly under the occupant, restraint systems integrated with the seat, and elimination of the inertial unlatching risk. Achieving these improvements requires a dynamic test standard.

President Bush has stated his opposition to this legislation, but Congress should pass it because it will prevent thousands of deaths and injuries each year. Congress should no longer allow automakers to roll over on safety.




Joan Claybrook headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.