In an effort to avoid more stringent roof strength regulations, the automobile manufacturers have argued to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and in lawsuits that roof crush is not causally connected to occupant injury. As a result, current roof crush regulations have remained unchanged since 1971. Two recent reports reveal that safety advocates and plaintiff’s lawyers have been right all along. These reports conclude that the amount of roof crush intrusion is directly related to the severity of injury. In short, these studies conclude that stronger roofs will save hundreds of lives.
The first study, published by the NHTSA in October 2007, studied thousands of accidents from 1997 — 2005. Twenty-four different statistical models were used to evaluate the relationship between injury severity and roof crush. The study concluded that the relationship between roof crush and injury severity remained, regardless of the statistical model used. The other study was conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It was released in March 2008. This study looked at the relationship between roof strengths of eleven mid-size SUVs and the rate of fatal or incapacitating injury in single vehicle rollover crashes. This study concluded that in all cases, increased measures of roof strength resulted in significantly reduced rates of fatal or incapacitating injury. IIHS President, Adrian Lund, observed: “What we do know from this study is that strengthening a vehicle’s roof reduces injury risk and reduces it a lot.”
The IIHS estimates that people in SUVs with roofs as strong as the top-rated Nissan Xterra face up to 57% less risk of serious injury or death in a single vehicle rollover as those in the 1999-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee or 1996-2004 Chevrolet Blazer. The 1996-2001 Ford Explorer was also among the SUVs that the IIHS said had the weakest roofs. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major auto makers, calls the IIHS report “flawed.” Unfortunately, there remains no definitive answer as to what effect roof strength has on injury risk and rollover crashes.
About 35% of deaths to occupants in car crashes involve rollovers. This amounted to more than 10,500 people in 2006, federal data showed. The 212 deaths that the IIHS said could have been prevented that year with stronger roofs would have reduced fatalities in those 11 SUV models that year by about one-third. Few issues are more contentious in auto safety than what is known as “roof crush.” The problem first gained attention in the early 1980s after the Ford Pinto in which 20-year old Kelly Sue Green was riding hit a horse near Portland, Oregon. The animal was thrown onto the roof of the damaged car. The roof then collapsed onto Green’s head and she was killed. A jury ordered Ford Motor Company to pay Mrs. Green’s husband $1.475 million. Since then, automakers and consumer advocates have debated the likely role that auto roofs play in deaths and injuries in rollovers. The acrimony has risen along with the popularity of SUVs. The advocacy group Public Citizen has led the attacks on automakers about the issue and has long urged NHTSA to upgrade its 37-year-old standard.
NHTSA first proposed upgrading its roof strength rule in 2005. After pressure from safety advocates and victims’ families, NHTSA requested comments on a tougher plan. It would involve testing both sides of a vehicle’s roof. The government has required since 1971 that roofs on cars be able to hold more than 1.5 times the vehicle’s weight. The standard was extended to cover SUVs and pickups in 1991. In 2005, NHTSA proposed raising that figure to two times the car’s weight. Now, it is considering up to three times the car’s weight, something safety advocates have urged.
Robert Shull, deputy director for auto safety at Public Citizen, says NHTSA under-estimates the effects stronger roofs would have. For example, he notes, the agency doesn’t attribute fatalities to roof crush if the deaths occur after a door opens or a window smashes during a rollover and the passenger is totally or partially ejected. Shull argues, though, that a weak roof can also lead indirectly to rollover deaths and injuries. When a vehicle rolls, it causes the whole system to be compromised, Shull says. When a roof can’t handle the weight of a car, he notes, the side pillars alongside the windshields and between the doors must bear the car’s weight and can begin to crumble. Lund, of the IIHS, agrees and says: “Stronger roofs keep doors and windows from opening.” As a result, he disputes the NHTSA’s suggestion that people not using seatbelts are not likely to be helped much by stronger roofs.
Still unclear is the role of seatbelt use in rollover accidents. Two-thirds of those killed in rollover crashes aren’t belted. Automakers contend that crushing roofs aren’t the cause of injuries to unbelted occupants. Victims and advocates reject that assertion. They argue that the issue is simple: No matter how a motorist comes into contact with a car roof, everyone would be safer if the roofs were less likely to crush. Paula Lawlor, a roof crush consultant who works with plaintiffs, says stronger roofs would aid both belted and unbelted motorists. “You could save thousands of lives a year,” says Lawlor, who founded the advocacy group People Safe in Rollovers. “People are dying totally unnecessarily.”
Source: USA Today
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