U.S. Lawmakers Question Regulators on Vehicle Roof Strength Rules

June 5, 2008

U.S. auto safety regulators Wednesday told lawmakers they need more time to develop a tougher standard for vehicle roofs to ensure that adding more weight and headroom would not cause more vehicles to roll over.

Some regulators, lawmakers, and safety and consumer groups have aggressively pushed for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require stronger roofs to reduce deaths and injuries in rollover crashes. Rollover-related deaths account for about a quarter of all U.S. traffic fatalities, which have topped 40,000 annually in recent years.

“This is something we can fix. This is something we can make a difference on,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, during a hearing by a Senate subcommittee on consumer affairs, insurance and automotive safety.

NHTSA proposed in 2005 to require automakers to build passenger vehicles able to withstand a force equal to 2.5 times their own weight in a rollover crash. The current standard, set in 1973, is 1.5 times a vehicle’s weight.

After criticism that its proposal did not go far enough, NHTSA said in January it might consider a standard tougher than a 2.5 strength-to-weight ratio, as well as require automakers to test both sides of a vehicle.

The agency said at the hearing it is still working to ensure a higher standard does not add too much roof weight or headroom that could cause more rollovers.

“It could upset the balance of increasing roof strength and increasing rollover propensity,” said James Ports, deputy NHTSA administrator.

Ports gave no indication when the agency would complete its work and finalize a new roof strength standard.

Under law, NHTSA must update its roof standard by July 1, but lawmakers at the hearing said NHTSA should focus on getting the standard right even if it should take more time. Sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks are more prone to roll than cars, mostly because of a higher center of gravity.

Some lawmakers said they were also concerned about language in the NHTSA’s proposed tougher standard that would protect automakers from state product liability lawsuits if the manufacturers met the new standard.

“Why all of a sudden does NHTSA feel the need to crush the rights of the states?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.

Joan Claybrook, president of advocacy group Public Citizen, told lawmakers the preemption clause “would leave victims uncompensated and remove incentives to improve the safety designs beyond the weak new proposed rule.”

Auto industry advocates said carmakers have voluntarily taken action to mitigate rollover injuries and fatalities by adding electronic stability control, improving side impact protection and adding safety belt reminder systems. They contend there is little proof that significantly increasing roof strength requirements saves lives.

Rob Strassburger, vice president of safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said his group’s research shows “no relationship” between the vehicle roof strength ratio and the risk of serious head, neck or face injury for belted occupants.

Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas who chairs the subcommittee, said he would want to see more information from NHTSA that indicates its performance measures would translate into real results. “If the new rules don’t make a major difference in improving safety and preventing deaths, we really haven’t accomplished much,” Pryor said.

(Reporting by Karey Wutkowski, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)

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