Gov't Considers New Vehicle Roof Safety Standards

Dennis Douda, WCCO

Rollover accidents are not that common, but they are among the deadliest types of crashes because the roof of the vehicle sometimes caves in.

The government is considering new safety standards, but critics say the new standards do not go far enough.

Rev. Lawrence Harris will never stand tall in church again, will never walk again and will never again live day-to-day with ease.

Ever since a serious rollover accident left him a quadriplegic, Harris's wheelchair has been a part of his daily life. He said he feels lucky to be alive, as more than 10,000 people die in rollovers each year.

Often times, people are killed when the car roof collapses.

"That's what came down and crushed my vertebrae," Harris said.

To reduce the risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now proposing new roof strength standards.

Now, a roof has to withstand an applied force of one-and-a-half times the weight of the vehicle. The proposal increases that to two-and-a-half times.

NHTSA estimates the move would save an extra 13 to 44 lives each year. Safety experts said it is not nearly enough.

"There's no doubt that this rule would do very little to save lives," said safety expert Joan Claybrook. "The new proposal is really, almost worthless to us."

Claybrook and safety expert Sean Kane said nearly 70 percent of vehicles sold today already meet the proposed strength standard.

"These are the same vehicles that are causing death and injuries to the people that are in rollover crashes today," said Kane.

Kane points to case after case of rollover accidents with roofs collapsing, despite already meeting the proposed requirement. Harris's 1987 van would have met the new standards.

"I would have still ended up exactly where I'm at," Harris said.

NHTSA refused to go on-camera, but said if roofs are made too strong, there is a risk of making them too heavy, which would increase the rollover risk.

Leading injury expert Carl Nash, with the Center for Injury Research, disagrees.

"Manufacturers have the capability of making much stronger roofs without really adding much to the weight," Nash said.

Nash said at least one carmaker is already using state-of-the-art technology to surpass what the government is asking for.

"An example of that is the Volvo SUV, which rolls over very nicely," said Nash. "The roof remains in place, basically."

The Volvo roof is made to withstand more than three times the weight of the vehicle and is put through actual rollover testing.

"The roof doesn't rush, the windows don't break, people don't get ejected," Claybrook said.

Claybrook is calling for the government to require actual rollover testing. Now, cars must pass a strength test where metal plates are used to press down on the driver's side of the roof.

"It puts most of the pressure on the pillars that are over your shoulder, whereas when you actually have a rollover, it's the pillars that hold the windshield that are the ones that are really the most critical," Claybrook said.

NHTSA said the current test can simulate real-world rollover patterns and that the proposed standard of two-and-a-half times is enough.

Harris said he's living proof the new standards will not be enough. While it is too late for him, he said he his new mission is to help save others.

"We would feel terrible to realize that there are other people down the line that could end up as quads, as pars or even dead because we didn't take a stand," Harris said.

Government safety experts will decide whether to go with the new standards later this month.