On July 1st, as has been widely reported, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will enact rules that would increase vehicle roof strength standards. Consumer advocates and a number of U.S. Senators have demanded that NHTSA come up with a strong rule that will actually protect folks. At a Congressional hearing last month, it was pointed out that the regulatory agency needs to get the rules “right” rather than get them done “quickly.” NHTSA is expected to enact the first significant upgrade to its so-called “216 Rule” since it was created in 1973. As we have reported, the rule requires a vehicle to withstand at least 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle, slowly applied to one side of the vehicle by what is called a “static crusher.” The new proposal would increase that standard to 2.5 times the weight of the vehicle – possibly to both sides — and might include a controversial preemption clause that would essentially keep consumers from filing lawsuits against automakers whose vehicles kill or injure them in rollovers.
Although rollovers comprise less than 5% of all crashes, 25% of all vehicle fatalities are from rollovers – approximately 10,000 every year. Although the upgraded standard is expected to save some lives, it won’t save enough. NHTSA needs to spend more time testing to find a better standard. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) commented on the proposed rule:
I don’t think it’s as important they get it done in July 2008 as it is they get it done right. NHTSA did not provide any information as to why it chose 2.5 over any other ratio. If we have a little increase in roof strength and that has a little effect on fatalities, then we’ve done nothing.
The hearing was held by the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Insurance, and Automotive Safety. Senator Coburn was moved by the story of Kevin Moody, a constituent whose 18-year-old son died when his Ford Explorer rolled in 2003. It obviously had an effect on the Senator when Mr. Moody testified at the hearing. There’s no question that Congress will have to step in and set the rule if NHTSA refuses to do it properly on July 1st.
It was significant that pertinent and probing questions were also raised at the hearting about federal preemption. Pointed questions from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) on the proposal’s preemption clause were handled poorly by NHTSA officials. For example, the Senator asked:
What does this (proposal) have to do with wiping out everyone’s right to use their state courts? Is this coming from the White House? Where are these boilerplate preemption rules coming from?
It was reported by the media that a NHTSA representative answered almost every question by “meekly thanking” Senator McCaskill for the question and saying some variation of “we included it as part of the public discussion. It may not appear in the final ruling.” Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), chair of the subcommittee, warned NHTSA that the agency is “overstepping (its) bounds.” The Senator made it clear that if NHTSA continues to pursue this preemption language, it will get “bipartisan opposition to it.” Under the Bush administration these preemption clauses have appeared in many of the rulemakings for NHTSA and other regulatory agencies. Stephen Oesch, senior vice president of the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the subcommittee members that the Institute’s own tests reveal that the new standard will save lives by 28% and that increasing that standard only increases the percentages of lives saved. In this regard, he added:
There is a direct correlation of increased roof strength and decreased risk of injury.
Joan Claybrook, president of the not-for-profit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and former director of NHTSA, said an overall increased roof strength acts like a strong chassis that keeps the car safe in rollovers and durable during other crashes as well. Joan believes the agency should also test vehicles with a dynamic test that would put a vehicle through a realistic simulation of a test – similar to the tests many luxury European car manufacturers such as Volvo and BMW already perform. The strong consumer advocate said the Jordon Rollover System, which has been used by insurance companies for years, accurately details roof strength within a few degrees of separation for each test
By proposing a roof crush rule that fails to require manufacturers to test both the driver and passenger sides of vehicles and does not even consider dynamic testing, NHTSA has ignored a congressional mandate to reduce rollover deaths, which have surged with the popularity of top-heavy sport utility vehicles. In its 2005 highway bill, Congress demanded that NHTSA write new performance standards that would improve vehicle stability, reduce passenger ejections and increase roof strength. The legislation also clearly called for testing both sides of the vehicle roof. Studies show that the initial impact of a rollover can break the windshield, which can substantially weaken the other side of the roof, greatly increasing the chance it will crumple and injure the occupants.
Instead, NHTSA’s proposed rule relies solely on measuring the ability of the driver’s side roof to resist 2.5 times the vehicle’s weight, which is an increase from the existing standard but does very little by itself to improve safety, Claybrook said. NHTSA estimates that its proposal will save, at most, only 476 lives a year. “These estimates show that NHTSA has neither looked at the problem of rollover fatalities in a new light nor made a real attempt to correct the problem,” Claybrook said. “In the face of more than 10,500 fatalities a year, an ‘upgraded’ rule that barely addresses 5% of the fatalities is just gross negligence.”
Until the agency can issue a dynamic crash test standard, it should provide consumers with information about the roof strength of vehicles on the market using an upgraded static consumer information test, as well as highlight whether other safety equipment in the vehicle, such as safety belt pretensioners and side curtain airbags, are designed to operate in rollover crashes. This will allow consumers to make an assessment of the roof strength of vehicles on the market until a dynamic test is implemented.
Roof crashes should be highly survivable and safety advocates have known about the problem for almost 20 years. It’s apparent that a significant number of Senators will keep the dialogue going on the issue of roof safety. While the options vary from giving NHTSA more time to develop a more substantial rule, to Congress passing a law to trump the agency’s efforts, one thing seems very clear: NHTSA has few allies in Congress on the issue. It’s good to see Congress getting involved in this fight. Safety should be a top priority for the automobile industry and it surely should be on NHTSA’s priority list. I have never believed that NHTSA was free of undue influence from the industry. The agency will definitely get a good test of its independence and commitment to safety on July 1st. Hopefully, it will do the right thing!
Source: Public Citizen
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