Safety activists say federal standards are too lax
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Last year, federal safety officials proposed strengthening a 35-year-old vehicle roof strength standard after studying the contentious issue for more than a decade.
Safety advocates immediately criticized the new proposal as toothless and designed more to protect automakers from new cost burdens than American motorists from crushed roofs in rollovers.
But at the same time, automakers both foreign and domestic have been quietly lobbying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to loosen the proposed rules, exempt some vehicles and change testing procedures.
The haggling threatens to further delay a meaningful update of roof strength regulations, which have remained unchanged for more than three decades while virtually every other major vehicle safety rule has been updated, often several times.
"It’s very sad to see the very slow reaction to the issue of occupant protection," Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., said Sunday. "Is this the best we can do after 35 years?"
In the past six months, Detroit’s Big Three automakers have met with federal officials to make the case that the proposed new rules and testing procedures are too stringent and unworkable. The earliest the new rules could take effect is 2010, but some automakers said they won’t be able to fully comply in time.
Moreover, automakers say strengthening vehicle roofs is not an effective way to prevent deaths in rollover accidents, arguing that proper seat belt use and advanced restraint and stability control systems are the best way to save lives.
This all comes as roof strength has emerged as a major highway safety issue in recent years. Each year, an estimated 7,000 people are killed or severely injured in rollovers in which the roof crushed, according to federal statistics. Juries across the country have repeatedly rejected Big Three-backed studies that deny a link between crushed roofs and injuries.
New rules proposed
NHTSA’s proposed standard would require that a vehicle roof withstand a force equal to 2.5 times the vehicle weight while maintaining sufficient head room for a buckled-in average size adult male to avoid being struck — up from the current 1.5 times standard.
The new rules also would dramatically expand the number of vehicles required to undergo roof-strength testing.
NHTSA estimates the new standard would save up to 44 lives a year and prevent up to 793 injuries. That strikes many as woefully inadequate.
It’s a "do-nothing" mandate that "will not address the pressing need to save thousands of lives from rollover crashes," said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Washington-based Highway and Auto Safety.
Carmakers don’t like the proposal either, but for different reasons.
Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Big Three and other automakers, said the vast majority of rollover deaths are the result of occupants not wearing seat belts, rather than roof intrusion. He said safety features like electronic stability control that prevent rollovers are more important.
And, Territo said, adding weight to strengthen roofs can have the unintended consequence of making vehicles more top heavy and rollover prone. "The potential benefits from improving roof strength have never been all that substantial," he said.
NHTSA reconsiders tests
Further complicating matters, NHTSA recently acknowledged that its assessment last August that 68 percent of current vehicles could meet the proposed new standard was inaccurate, in part because the government didn’t test the heaviest vehicles.
Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and General Motors Corp. all told NHTSA that many of their current vehicles wouldn’t pass under the new requirements. As a result, complying with the proposed rules would be significantly more expensive than initial estimates.
Ford, for example, retested two vehicles that the government said would pass and found neither would. Of eight Ford vehicles tested by the Dearborn automaker, just one — the 2003 Ford Focus — would pass the new tougher rule.
DaimlerChrysler said just 37 percent of its current vehicle lineup pass the new rules.
GM also said NHTSA didn’t follow its proposed testing procedures when it did its tests. As a result, GM said NHTSA overstated roof strength by up to 21 percent.
NHTSA is testing additional vehicles until the end of the year.
Testing roof strength is fraught with complicating issues. Nissan Motor Co. noted, for example, that under NHTSA’s proposal, if a sun visor dropped down during a rollover and hit the test dummy, the vehicle would fail — but that contact might not cause injuries.
Porsche said the new rules would require it to build a $1 million testing facility. And the German automaker said it needs until September 2012 to retool its models to comply with a new standard, saying it had just introduced new versions of its 911 and Boxster.
For some of its heaviest vehicles, DaimlerChrysler wants an additional five years to meet the standard beyond the three-year lead-in NHTSA has already suggested.
Chrysler, which met with NHTSA on April 13 to lay out its concerns, also wants armored vehicles like presidential limousines exempted from the new rules. Automakers also want the government to rewrite the testing rules to make it easier for them to pass. The automakers said low-profile vehicles, especially sports cars like the Ford GT, will not be able to meet the new rules without significant redesign. Requiring the Dodge Viper and Chrysler Crossfire to meet the new rules "is not reasonable, practical or appropriate," said Stephen J. Speth, director of Chrysler’s vehicle compliance and safety affairs.
It also wants its Jeep Wrangler exempted from the new rules and treated as a convertible — something NHTSA initially rejected. It also wants the Dodge Sprinter van tested like a school bus "given the unique configuration of Sprinter’s roof," spokesman Max Gates said.
Automakers lobby NHTSA
Eight Ford officials met with NHTSA on July 26 to discuss the company’s concerns in a 58-page-proposal. GM met with NHTSA in February.
Robert Lange, GM’s executive director of safety and structural integration, said the company needed a "phase-in" of the mandate because the proposal "would overtax our technical and financial resources; and perhaps the capability of our supply base as well."
The NHTSA proposal to improve roof strength won’t be finalized until next fall at the earliest. Then automakers will get another three years to make the changes.
The automakers are especially worried about their largest vehicles being able to pass the new test — namely those heavier than 6,000 pounds. James Vondale, Ford’s director of automotive safety, said solutions for vehicles under that weight are "more likely to be based on conventional technologies," but heavier vehicles "will require new and developing technologies and manufacturing processes with new suppliers."
Vondale said all the automakers agree NHTSA’s proposed testing procedures need significant revisions.
The proposal has an "unacceptable variability manufacturers found in our attempts to measure the distance between the dummy head and the interior vehicle trim.
"We found the equipment in the available test facilities was unable to handle the high loads for some of the heavier vehicles and it needs to be modified. It also blocks access to the interior of the vehicle, making it difficult to properly position and obtain the specified dummy measurements, adding to the variability," Vondale said.
This is only the latest chapter in a 35-year-old controversy over roof strength regulation known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216,
GM and Ford essentially drafted the regulation as it stands. In 1971, the automakers led an industrywide effort to convince federal officials to adopt a minimum standard for roof strength — but only after their vehicle fleets failed the government’s first proposed test, according to internal corporate documents examined by The Detroit News for a series of stories in 2004.
In 1991, Congress told NHTSA to address issues surrounding rollovers, especially as SUVs — with higher centers of gravity and more likely to rollover — became more popular.
Then in 2005, Congress ordered NHTSA to rewrite its roof strength rules.
Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman, said the agency is in the process of doing additional testing of vehicles. "There’s no sense in rushing this. You’ve got to do it right," Tyson said. "This is a very difficult issue.
All of NHTSA’s proposed rules go to the White House Office of Management and Budget for approval. The office determines whether the benefit of a proposed change outweighs the cost involved.
Last August, NHTSA rejected a tougher 3.0 times force standard that it said would have saved up to 135 lives a year and prevented as many as 2,500 injuries a year, in part because it would cost automakers too much.
The 2.5-times vehicle weight roof standard raises vehicle costs by about $17 each, including higher fuel costs, or about $285 million, NHTSA estimates.
The higher standard would have cost $88 per vehicle, or $1.3 billion.
NHTSA says the cost per life saved under its proposal is $2.1 million to $3.4 million. NHTSA assigns a value to each life of $3.5 million; under its standard there are "net benefits" to society of as much as $64 million for the proposed standard.