Ford, Volvo Clash on Roof Design

Auto regulators take internal files off the Web that depict a conflict over the safety feature.By Myron Levin
Times Staff Writer

May 4, 2005

Federal auto safety regulators have taken the unusual step of removing documents on vehicle roof design from a government website at the request of Ford Motor Co. The material includes internal reports from Ford and its Volvo subsidiary that suggest the Swedish automaker views sturdy roofs as an important safety feature, a stance at odds with that of its parent company.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday removed the documents from a website of public comments on proposed changes in the federal standard for roof strength in passenger vehicles. Ford requested the material be removed, saying that a court order in a wrongful death case in Florida barred their release and that the disclosure would cause "irreparable" harm by revealing trade secrets.

An NHTSA spokesman said the agency would review Ford's confidentiality claim and decide what to do with the papers.

The action comes amid a highly charged debate over NHTSA's effort to craft a tougher vehicle roof strength standard, a move opposed by Ford and other major automakers who say roof strength has little effect on occupant injuries in rollover accidents.

The episode highlights a sensitive issue for Ford, a difference in design approach between Ford and the Swedish automaker that Ford acquired in 1999.

Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said Ford and Volvo "are both safety pioneers" that incorporated new safety features in their sport utility vehicles. She said research by both companies had shown "no direct causal correlation between roof strength and injury severity."

Roof collapse in vehicle rollovers may cause or contribute to as many as 6,900 serious to fatal injuries per year, NHTSA estimates. Safety advocates say the current roof crush standard, adopted in 1971, was too weak then and is grossly inadequate now given the popularity of top-heavy pickups and SUVs.

NHTSA recently sent a draft of a proposed new roof standard to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major federal regulations. The proposal has not been made public.

The Ford and Volvo documents had been posted for about 24 hours on the NHTSA site when Ford requested their removal.

The documents were submitted to NHTSA by Sean Kane, a Massachusetts-based safety consultant who often works with plaintiffs in automotive liability cases. Kane said in March that he and others obtained copies of the papers from public court files in Duval County, Fla., where they were exhibits in a wrongful death case involving a Ford Explorer.

A Jacksonville jury on March 18 ordered Ford to pay damages of $10.2 million to the husband of Claire Duncan, 26, who died after her 2000 Ford Explorer rolled and the roof collapsed. The Duncan family lawyers sought to prove with the documents that Ford skimped on safety and that its public position on roof strength was undercut by Volvo's.

Ford had produced the documents to the Duncan lawyers under a protective order that barred them from publicly releasing the documents. But the papers were stored in court files after the case ended. Realizing that people were copying the documents, Ford filed a motion April 22 to enforce the protective order.

By then, court clerks had made copies for Kane and others, including the Detroit News, which publicized some of the documents in an article in late March.

The documents include test data suggesting that roofs on Ford Explorers were made progressively weaker during the 1990s to the point where they were barely more robust than required by the federal standard. The Explorer roofs have a "less than desirable safety margin," said a Ford engineer in an e-mail in October 1999.

The Volvo documents reflect its concern about increasing roof strength for the new Volvo XC90 SUV, along with improving seat belts to hold passengers firmly in place in a rollover. The documents discussed the development of more advanced tests to see how roofs actually perform in rollovers.

"Improvements in this area will increase the passengers' rollover protection," one Volvo report said.

The roof of the Volvo SUV is more than twice as strong as required by the federal standard, the Swedish company has previously said.

Ford told NHTSA in its letter Friday that the documents could expose trade secrets, such as "the strategies by which new technological advancements are introduced."

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said removal of the material might be only temporary.

"There were some documents that were placed in the public docket, which is a privilege or right that anyone has," Tyson said. In response to Ford's request, "we have removed the documents from the public file while Ford makes its claim for confidentiality, which we'll review and then make a decision."

Randy Barnhart, a Denver lawyer who has battled Ford in roof crush cases, said the company had acted too late. "The problem is, the genie is out of the bottle," Barnhart said. "Volvo's philosophy, which is entirely contrary to its parent Ford, is now well-known to the public."

Automakers have long contended that roof strength is of little consequence, because vehicle occupants typically strike the roof when a vehicle flips over. According to this argument, an injury will result from the force of a body pressing down on the head and neck, whether or not the vehicle's roof holds up.

The cornerstone of the industry's argument is research sponsored by General Motors Corp. in which test dummies were just as likely to strike their heads and necks in rollovers of cars with reinforced roofs as in cars with standard roofs.

However, critics said the data actually showed that the force of the head and neck impacts was less severe in cars with reinforced roofs than in conventional roofs that collapsed.