Auto Rollover Rules Proposed

U.S. officials say the regulations will reduce deaths. Critics slam an anti-lawsuit provision.By Myron Levin
Times Staff Writer

August 20, 2005

U.S. highway safety officials proposed new rules Friday to reduce deaths and injuries from roof failures when vehicles flip over, extending the standards to cover large sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

But consumer advocates denounced the proposal as toothless and attacked a provision that would bar victims of roof failures from suing automakers that meet the new standard.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the new rule would result in a small reduction in highway casualties: 13 to 44 deaths and as many as 800 injuries a year. The agency estimates that it will cost manufacturers $11.81 to strengthen the roof of each new vehicle.

"We believe this is a significant improvement over the standard that now exists," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the agency. But "people out there are putting too much faith in the value of a strengthened roof."

The current roof crush standard was adopted by the safety agency in 1971 and has long been criticized as too weak. It requires roofs to withstand a force equal to 1.5 times the vehicle weight without the roof intruding more than five inches into the passenger compartment.

Under the new proposal, the force would be raised to 2.5 times the vehicle weight, and in tests, the roof would not be allowed to contact the head of a test dummy the size of an average adult. The new rule also would cover large trucks and SUVs weighing up to 10,000 pounds. The current rule exempts vehicles of more than 6,000 pounds.

Eron Shosteck, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the industry group would defer comment until after its engineers and lawyers had reviewed the proposal.

Alan Adler, a spokesman for General Motors, said, "There's nothing in there that tells us we would not be able to comply with the new standard."

Safety activists who have long campaigned for tougher roof strength requirements say many existing vehicles already met the proposed standard. They vowed to fight language in the proposal that the new regulation would preempt state product liability laws. Under that scenario, carmakers that comply with the standard would automatically be shielded from injury suits.

The Bush administration has aggressively campaigned for legislative changes designed to rein in lawsuits. The safety administration's Tyson said the provision was aimed at avoiding de facto regulation by the state court system instead of "the federal agency that's responsible for highway safety."

Vehicle makers have settled scores of lawsuits and been hit with several huge negligence and punitive damage awards for allegedly installing weak roofs on pickups and SUVs. In June 2004, a San Diego jury awarded $367 million to a woman who was paralyzed when her Ford Explorer SUV flipped over and its roof collapsed. The trial judge subsequently trimmed the verdict to $150 million, and the case is being appealed.

Courts typically have ruled that federal vehicle safety rules are minimum standards, and that carmakers aren't automatically protected from lawsuits.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, called the new roof-strength rule "a product liability bailout for manufacturers who have weak roofs today and will continue to be allowed to have weak roofs in the future."

If you were crippled by the failure of a flimsy roof, "you would be prevented from getting any compensation for your injuries, no matter how serious," Ditlow said.

Tyson noted that the proposal was not a final rule and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would gather public comments for 90 days. "The whole intent is to put all these things out there for reaction," he said.

He said a final rule would not be announced until next year at the earliest.

Because of the huge popularity of top-heavy pickups and SUVs, rollover fatalities have risen to more than 10,000 per year out of about 42,000 total highway deaths.

The safety administration said roof crush appeared to figure in an estimated 596 deaths and 807 injuries a year among front-seat occupants who wore seat belts. The analysis did not include belted back-seat passengers or unbelted occupants.

In the proposal posted on its website and in the Federal Register, the agency said raising the standard above 2.5 times the weight would increase the risk of vehicles becoming more unstable from more steel in the roof raising their center of gravity.

Larry Coben, a plaintiffs' lawyer in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has handled many rollover claims, said manufacturers could easily fix that by widening the stance of their vehicles.

But Tyson said only modest improvement would result from more crush-resistant roofs. Noting that more than 60% of rollover deaths involve people who were unbelted, he said better compliance with seat belt laws could save thousands of lives.

Other safety measures, such as side curtain air bags, improved door latches and electronic stability control systems to prevent rollovers, would reduce death and injury, Tyson said.

In the proposal, the agency also asked for comments on the possibility of requiring that seat belts be equipped with pre-tensioning devices to hold passengers more firmly in place when their vehicles flip over.