Safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are having a difficult time updating the controversial standard for vehicle roof strength. The present standard has been on the books since 1971 and a proposed new standard has been repeatedly delayed. Now, NHTSA has asked for additional information from automakers, safety advocates, and the public about the proposed new standards. The most recent version of the rule under consideration at NHTSA would require both sides of a vehicle roof to support at least two and a half times the vehicle’s weight. But safety advocates aren’t buying it. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 through 1981, observed:
The proposal is still a static test – one based on mathematical calculations, rather than a dynamic physical test – and it still is at 2.5 times the weight of the vehicle.
The agency has played games with the regulation since the first NHTSA revision of the roof strength rule came about. Everybody knows the current rule is very weak. The existing standard mandates that just one side support at least one and a half of the weight of a vehicle weight. The initial revision of the roof strength rule from NHTSA required support of two and a half times vehicle weight but would have continued testing on one side only. NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason now says that double-sided testing is a viable alternative approach.
Safety activists have demanded a “dynamic” rollover test, which would require rolling a moving vehicle to gather data. Automakers insist that such a test will be costly, and that accidents involving rollovers include too many variables to design a reliable test. Each year, nearly 10,000 people die in rollover crashes, but government data suggest that only a small percentage of vehicle occupants are killed by collapsing roofs. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook had this to say about the proposed rule:
The proposal absolutely ignores ejection and containment in the vehicle during rollovers, in which 10,500 people die each year and another 17,000 are seriously injured. To justify a strong rollover protection standard, the agency should address roof crush, ejection and containment as one standard.
Congress most recently directed NHTSA to adopt a new roof standard by April 2009. NHTSA plans to issue a new rollover rule later this year. I hope the agency will put the safety and welfare of people first and foremost and get the job done.
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