In 1999, the CDC announced its selections for the 10 greatest achievements in U.S. public health history in the 20th century, and among them was improvements in motor vehicle safety.  I’ve nothing against looking at success over a long term, but we know that much still needs to be done.  The rate of motor vehicle fatalities has indeed declined substantially over the last 100 years, but the rate of deaths and serious injuries in roof-crush and rollovers has actually increased.

In 2006, (the most current NHTSA data available), nearly 11,500 people died in rollover crashes, and another 163,000 people suffered injuries.  I was shocked by the shear numbers AND when I learned that the standards guiding roof crush resistance date back to 1971.  1971?? 

Readers of The Pump Handle and David Michaels’ newly-published book Doubt is Their Product should be able to predict why no improvements to vehicle roof strength standards have been implemented in nearly 37 years.

In an informative but disturbing report, Deadly by Design, issued by the People Safe in Rollovers Foundation, provide some of the shady history of the automobile manufacturers’ roof crush testing and interpretation of results.  The report notes:

“approximately 1,400 occupants were killed in 1969 by impact with the roof structure in rollover crashes due to excessive roof crush [and] FMVSS 216 was proposed ‘to reduce deaths and injuries due to the intrusion of the roof into the passenger compartment in rollovers.’  Rather than immediately embrace the idea of enhancing roof strength as a means of improving safety like the vehicle manufacturers had done in years past, their trade association, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, along with the vehicle manufacturers, took the position in comments to the proposed legislation, in papers, and in litigation that there was no causal relationship between roof crush and occupant injury.”

Yet, the industry’s internal documents said otherwise:

  • General Motors internal memo (1969): “clearly indicates that higher degree of roof collapse result in higher degrees of head injury”
  • Chrysler internal memo (1977): “the 400 additional lives saved in the research safety vehicles is the result of reduced roof intrusion.”

So, how have they been able to get away with it?  Well, get this:

It’s not about the roof crushing in, oh no.  It’s the occupant’s head diving into that poor unsuspecting roof.  Seriously, that’s the automakers’ scientific claim:

“We’d like to talk about roof crush a bit because I think there is some misunderstanding of how injuries really occur.  Intuitively you would think that injuries occur when the roof crushes in and hits the occupant, but the data doesn’t show that.  In fact, what it shows is that the first few milliseconds of the crash, when the vehicle is rolling in a rollover accident, the occupant is actually striking the roof so the injury occurs as his head is basically contacting the ground with the roof being in the way, not the roof coming in on the occupant.”  (Susan M. Cischke, VP, Ford Motor Company, U.S. Senate, Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, Feb 26, 2003; Source: Deadly by Design)

Oh, thanks for clarifying that—it’s the occupant’s fault, not a design problem.

Automobile manufacturers and their trade association have a notorious history of cover-ups, victim blaming and other anti-public health behavior.  On roof crush hazards alone, they’ve been able to avoid more protective regulation for nearly 37 years. 

But now, NHTSA is under a congressional mandate to issue a final rule to improve FMVSS No. 216, related to roof strength for driver and passenger sides of motor vehicles, by July 1, 2008.*   Only very recently have I learned about this rulemaking and at least two VERY disturbing provisions in it.

First, the current “Strength-to-Weight Ratio” (SWR) (a measure of roof strength in roof crush tests) requirement is 1.5, and NHTSA has proposed increasing the minimum SWR to 2.5.  Auto safety experts, however, submitted comments to NHTSA demonstrating that the proposed 2.5 SWR is inadequate (here, here, here).  In fact, Public Citizen notes that few lives will be saved by the proposed 2.5 SWR standard because the vast majority of vehicles manufactured already exceed this minimum standard.

“NHTSA officials have said that only a small number of lives — 50– would be saved by the new standard, although roof crush in rollovers kill 6,000 to 7,000 people a year, and 27,000 people annually are killed or seriously injured in rollover crashes. This type of NHTSA rule would save few lives, in part because data show the average roof strength of on-road vehicles is already 2.3 SWR, and that most vehicles now made can meet the anticipated NHTSA proposal. NHTSA found in 2003 that 8 of 10 vehicles would pass the anticipated new (2.5) standard.”

So, what’s the point of doing this rule if it isn’t really going to reduce significantly the thousands of lives lost each year in the U.S. from fatal roof crush injuries?  Like “Clean Skies” and “Healthy Forests,” it’s another Bush Administration ploy to convince the public they are doing good, when they’re not and when they may actually be causing harm.

Proponents of more protective vehicle safety standards recommend that the minimum SWR be set at 3.5, based on more realistic two-sided crash testing criteria.  For your reference, NHTSA provides some examples of the SWR on some typical cars such as the 2006 VW Jetta (SWR= 5.1), the 2006 Volvo XC90 (SWR = 4.6), the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe (SWR=2.1) and the 2006 Dodge Ram (SWR=1.7) in its proposal (chart here).

This chart says it loud and clear to me that designing cars with significant better roof crush resistance is absolutely possible, and if these SWR factors were printed on the showroom label, individuals would be able to make more informed car-buying decisions. (Of course, neither NHTSA or the automakers are proposing that kind of right-to-know.)

On to the second VERY disturbing part of this proposed rule on Roof Crush Resistance:

An exemption from civil liability for automakers.

The preamble to the proposed rule includes the following statement:

“if the proposal were adopted as a final rule, it would preempt all conflicting State common law requirements, including rules of tort law.” (excerpt here)

Get this: NHTSA is proposing an inadequate standard and if the car companies comply with it, and then someone is injured or killed because of the dangerous design, the victim or her family is not able to seek compensation in the courts?  What kind of %#&! is that???  

That’s exactly what NHTSA is proposing and the July 1, 2008 deadline for issuing a final rule is quickly approaching.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Insurance and Automotive Safety will be holding a hearing on June 4 to examine NHTSA’s rulemaking and the science behind roof strength and occupant injury.  Witnesses at the hearing will include Mr. David Garcia, a C4-C5 complete quadriplegic because of a rollover injury he suffered while driving a Ford Escort 2-door hatchback.

To learn more about this vitally important issue, click here, read their petition which calls for stopping NHTSA’s anti-consumer/anti-public health rulemaking, and sign it, or send a letter to your Senator.  (Members of the Subcommittee are listed here.)

*Note: The “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users Act” ( SAFETEA-LU ) of 2005 (P.L. 109-59) contains the provision requiring NHTSA to issue a proposed rule on roof strength for driver and passenger sides by Dec. 31, 2005, and a final rule by July 1, 2008.

    Current ye@r *