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, killing or paralyzing the occupants of the vehicles. In many cases when the roof crushes, the windows of the vehicle crush or blow out, seat belt and side air bag systems fail, and doors spring open, causing people to be ejected and killed.
The current roof crush rule was issued in 1971. The agency originally called for testing both sides of the roof, but General Motors Corporation (GM) argued that testing both sides of the roof was unnecessary. Years later, it was revealed in litigation that GM had used NHTSAs proposed two-sided test on six of its production model vehicles and that only one vehicle had passed. GM withheld its testing results from the agency but nevertheless argued for the one-sided test. NHTSAs final rule called for testing just one side of the roof.
In 2000, after news of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire rollover tragedies broke, NHTSA began mulling over a strengthening of the roof crush rule. But its proposed changes, released five years later, would do little to change the status quo. Even NHTSA says its proposed rule will save only 13 to 44 additional lives annually, an admission that the proposal is de minimus. Since 2000, 50,000 Americans have died in rollover crashes, making this one of the largest single causes of deaths in the new century. Today is the deadline NHTSA set to receive comments on its proposed rule. A copy of Public Citizens comments is available here.
NHTSA is squandering an unprecedented opportunity to save lives by reducing rollover deaths, said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. This is an egregious betrayal of the public trust. It is technologically feasible and cost-effective to make vehicle roofs much, much stronger. The government has an obligation to require auto manufacturers to do so. It is unconscionable that the agency has punted.
Internal auto industry documents in NHTSAs possession show that auto manufacturers know the dynamics of rollover crashes and understand how, using feasible, light-weight and cost-effective technology, to make much stronger roofs.
NHTSA should make these Volvo XC-90 documents public because they show how one small company led the way in rollover safety, Public Citizen said.
The proposed rule also contains a pre-emption provision that would prohibit people from suing manufacturers for injuries sustained from crushed roofs if the vehicles meet the government standard. This would 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, Public Citizen argued. It also would burden the taxpayers with the costs of these crashes.
At a press conference today, the Rev. Lawrence Harris, a Pittsgrove, N.J., resident who is now a quadriplegic as a result of a rollover crash, denounced the new rule. The vehicle he was in when the 1997 crash occurred, a 1987 Ford Econoline van, would have passed the proposed new test. His injuries show how inadequate the proposed rule is.
I have to live with the consequences of a government roof strength standard that is way too low, Harris said. Its time for citizens like us to be heard and for the government to enact a law that forces auto manufacturers to build vehicles that are safer, stronger and will increase the chances of people walking away from an accident.
NHTSA is proposing to increase the force that a vehicles roof must withstand in tests to 2.5 times the vehicles unloaded weight, up from the current 1.5 times. The increase is misleading, however, because NHTSA also has proposed changing the test requirements to allow greater roof intrusion. According to an analysis by Steve Batzer, a professional engineer and director of the Engineering Institute in Farmington, Ark., the average required increase in roof strength under the proposed rule amounts to requiring a roof to withstand just 1.64 times the vehicle weight, as measured by the current standard.
This proposed standard does not meet the public