New SUV Safety Rules Test Automakers
NHTSA's aggressive effort to prevent rollovers could force costly design changes
WASHINGTON -- Concerned about rising fatalities involving popular SUVs, government regulators are on the verge of taking the most aggressive steps to date to curb deadly rollover crashes -- moves that could undermine consumer demand for one of the industry's most profitable products.
Over the next few months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will begin using a new road test to better rate cars and trucks on how well they resist rollover. And by the end of the year, NHTSA is scheduled to propose new, sweeping rules designed to make vehicles far more protective for occupants in the event of a rollover.
NHTSA is acting under pressure from safety groups and lawmakers amid increased concern about rollover problems. The government has made progress in reducing injuries and fatalities resulting from other types of crashes, such as front-end collisions, by mandating air bags and encouraging seat-belt use.
Much is at stake for the auto industry as the government prepares to provide consumers with more information about the propensity of SUVs to roll over. Automakers face potentially expensive design changes if they want higher scores on rollover tests.
The new ratings come as the industry already is battling a backlash over the fuel economy of SUVs.
Fatality figures have gotten worse with the popularity of trucks and SUVs. In a 1989 report on rollovers, NHTSA first sounded the alarm by disclosing that 4,000 people were dying in rollover crashes annually. Today, the annual death toll has soared past 10,000 for all vehicles. SUV rollover deaths have been the driving force in the increase, rising from 882 in 1991 to 2,049 in 2000.
"Clearly, we're not doing enough," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington. "We know there are solutions out there."
Just last week, Gillan used a Senate hearing to press lawmakers to include rollover measures in a six-year highway bill expected to pass Congress this year.
Road test roll-out
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been working on a road test for rollover ratings since November 2000. That's when Congress passed the TREAD Act in response to the Firestone tire recall. Congress gave NHTSA a mandate -- and a November 2002 deadline -- to publish ratings of vehicles based on a test devised to measure how well they resist rollovers.
In November, NHTSA said it had decided to use two road tests developed by automakers, known as the "J-turn" and the "fishhook." The road tests involve making quick turns at relatively high speeds and assessing whether the wheels lift off the ground.
In response to automakers' concerns about making the test fair and accurate, NHTSA will use an automatic steering mechanism to perfectly replicate the steering maneuver in each test. To avoid differences caused by tire wear, NHTSA will only test vehicles with a brand new set of tires. The tests will begin by Sept. 1 so NHTSA can rate 2004 vehicles.
"We have done as much as humanly possible to design a test that is accurate and repeatable," said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.
NHTSA will continue to conduct its current rollover test, called the static stability factor, even after it begins its road testing. It will publish two rollover ratings for each vehicle. In the static test, the agency uses a mathematical formula to compute a vehicle's center of gravity, which agency officials contend correlates closely with what happens in real-world rollovers. NHTSA publishes a rating for every vehicle on a five-star scale.
The auto industry has complained that the static test does not account for technology that could prevent rollovers, such as electronic stability control systems that help drivers avoid the sharp, abrupt steering maneuvers that can trigger a crash.
Automakers seem resigned to dealing with the new, more complicated road tests. But they are concerned about the flow of conflicting safety information to consumers.
"A single rating system would be more helpful to consumers in understanding and making their purchase decisions," said Robert Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Gillan, of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, urged senators to require automakers to post rollover and other safety ratings on window stickers in the showroom.
New performance standards
NHTSA is also moving forward on another track, undertaking the first major overhaul of a regulation covering a light vehicle's roof strength since the rule was first implemented in 1973. A revised regulation has much broader implications for the auto industry and will be far more complicated for NHTSA to develop.
Under the 1973 regulation, known within the industry as safety standard 216, automakers must certify that a vehicle roof can bear weight equal to 1.5 times its own weight. Critics have said for years that the requirement does not come close to replicating what happens in a real-world crash. As a result, in a rollover crash, the passenger compartment can be crushed, leading to more severe injuries.
Nearly 80 percent of all rollover fatalities involve unbelted passengers. But NHTSA research shows caving roofs can be a problem even when occupants wear a seat belt. More than 3,700 belted passengers are killed or crippled each year because the vehicle's roof collapsed during a rollover, according to NHTSA research.
NHTSA has looked at the roof crush issue for more than a decade. In 1994, after three years of trying to write a regulation that would make vehicles less prone to rollovers, then-administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez abandoned the effort. He said the agency would pursue isolated crash countermeasures instead, particularly stronger roofs.
It's a promise that has been difficult for the agency to keep.
Automakers have argued that roof strength is an insignificant factor in rollover injuries. In an update to two earlier studies on roof strength, GM engineers told a conference in Washington last week that the most severe injuries in rollovers are caused by passengers -- even those who are belted -- diving into roofs when the vehicle is upside down.
Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said he wonders whether NHTSA will have to undertake years of more research before finalizing a new rule.
NHTSA could have been doing the research throughout the 1990s, but was consumed with solving problems related to air bags, Lund said.
"We don't know how much stronger we have to make roofs," Lund said. "You could require the roof to be stronger and also higher. We don't know right now what we want to measure. Which of the multiple kinds of rollover crashes do you choose for the test?"
But some engineers are openly dismissive of the engineering controversy, noting the fundamental principle of occupant safety in any kind of crash is to create a strong box around passengers and minimize intrusion into that box.
"If you're seat-belted, you will be protected -- as long as the roof doesn't cave in on you," said Campbell Laird, a materials engineering professor from the University of Pennsylvania who filed formal comments on the regulation. "There is no problem at all with making a stronger roof. A good roof will cost about as much as a good floor mat."
That notion is being put to the test with the Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle. Among many of the safety features in the vehicle is a roof reinforced with boron and high-strength steel. In a test for media in Sweden last year, the SUV rolled over three times, and the doors still opened. Laird and other safety experts will be looking for how the XC90 does in real-world crashes.