Not the Top of the Safety Priorities

Danny Hakim
New York Times

 

DETROIT, May 13 - Volvo has promoted the sturdiness of its cars' roofs since it ran advertisements in the 1970's showing seven Volvo sedans stacked up, asking, "Are you in the market for a hardtop?"

And Volvo, in introducing its first sport utility vehicle in 2002, the XC90, had a promotional video claiming the strength of the roof "exceeds the legal requirements in the U.S.A. by more than 100 percent."

But by that time, Volvo was a subsidiary of Ford Motor, which soon told Volvo that its public emphasis on roof strength was out of step with Ford's position on the matter and had to change, according to documents that have emerged in recent court cases.

In an e-mail message dated Nov. 23, 2002, Priya Prasad, a top Ford safety engineer, told a Volvo safety engineer, Ingrid Skogsmo, that it was "absolutely necessary to close the technical differences" between the companies, adding that top Ford officials wanted to resolve the disagreement "immediately."

The dispute between Volvo, the Swedish automaker with a reputation for promoting safety, and its new corporate parent centered on the role that crushed vehicle roofs play in the more than 10,000 deaths and 16,000 serious injuries from rollovers each year.

The issue is gaining increased attention with the proliferation of rollover lawsuits. At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is about to issue the first changes to roof regulations since they were created in the 1970's.

Regulators have found that roofs crumpled to varying degrees in more than a quarter of rollover accidents, or more than 7,000 of them. In the last two decades, regulators have toughened rules for the front, rear ends and sides of cars but not for the roof.

There is a bitter debate over the extent to which crushed roofs actually cause injuries. For decades, American automakers have argued that many injuries or deaths from rollovers occur in the moments just before the roof crushes, when an occupant of a vehicle is thrown into the roof - not when roofs collapse on people's heads.

"There is no data out there to suggest people are injured by a roof collapsing," said Susan Cischke, Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering.

Consumer groups vigorously disagree and say the rule on roof strength looks especially lacking given the rise of S.U.V.'s and big pickup trucks, which are more prone to rollovers than passenger cars. The largest S.U.V.'s, like the Hummers from General Motors, are not subject to existing roof regulations.

"It's malarkey," said Joan Claybrook, a former regulator and the president of the consumer group Public Citizen. "When you tell people that the roof crushing in on your head is not the cause of injury, it's your head hitting the roof, it's laughable."

Volvo, acquired by Ford in 1999, has a history of making roof strength a priority, going back to 1967 when it began reinforcing the roof support pillars of its 140 Series sedan, though its reputation took a blow in 1990 when it admitted it rigged the roof of one of its cars in a commercial. Still, European automakers, and particularly Volvo, have long conducted more stringent rollover tests.

The Volvo XC90 was sold as "a different S.U.V." with innovations to prevent and mitigate rollovers, including side-curtain airbags and improved seat belts that cinch up during accidents. A major feature is a roof reinforced with high-strength boron steel. Internal Volvo documents describe the reinforced roof as a crucial component of the company's rollover protection strategy.

But Ford officials were concerned that Volvo was overemphasizing the issue of roof strength. The previously unknown skirmish inside Ford's global empire surfaced in Mr. Prasad's November 2002 e-mail message.

"U.S. does not currently believe in roof crush as the major contributor to head/neck injuries in rollovers," he wrote, "Does Volvo have any scientific study to show otherwise?"

He went on, "This issue has dragged on very long, is very litigation-oriented in U.S. (close to 110 cases pending) and the topmost management in the company is impatient." He said that Ford's second-highest-ranking executive at the time, Nicholas V. Scheele, wanted an immediate resolution.

The message, and one written three weeks later, in which Mr. Prasad laid out five talking points for Volvo and Ford's other subsidiaries, are under court seal. Three people on the plaintiff's side of separate cases read or copied parts of the messages and provided them to The New York Times. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the court seal.

Ford officials acknowledged the existence of the documents but would not confirm their contents.

"Ford and Volvo do share the same views regarding roof strength and we have not disagreed," Ms. Cischke said. "Where there has been some confusion is how we talk about things."

In pointing to similarities in the companies' views, Ford officials produced a 1999 Volvo study that said roof crumpling alone did not necessarily mean that injuries would occur. And in a 2001 filing with the government, Ford said that Volvo's "revised roof structures" could have an effect when combined with the XC90's other safety systems.

But in an e-mail message dated Dec. 13, 2002, that Mr. Prasad sent to senior Ford executives, he said that Ford studies showed "no direct causal correlation between roof strength" and neck injuries when people were wearing seat belts. Mr. Prasad also raised concerns in the message about material on Volvo's Web site, suggesting it clashed with Ford's view. References to the XC90's reinforced roof are no longer on Volvo's American Web site.

Ms. Cischke said Mr. Prasad's memorandum was a normal "position paper" the company prepares on every significant safety issue.

As Ford executives feared, plaintiffs' lawyers are increasingly pitting the views of the parent company and its subsidiary against each other.

Warren Platt, a top outside counsel for Ford, said that "if you put all of the auto companies on a continuum, Volvo has had more belief that stronger roofs were going to make some difference than other companies have had."

"I don't know that there was really any data to support that, and I don't know that Volvo has any safety data that it prevented any one injury."

Ford officials said that Volvo executives would not be made available for comment. Thomas Broberg, a Volvo safety official, declined to comment.

At the time the e-mail messages were written, Ford's chief executive, William Clay Ford Jr., was pulling the company founded by his great-grandfather out of a hole. Even as the company remains under intense pressure, with Standard & Poor's having recently cut Ford's debt rating to junk, Mr. Ford has pushed to develop both advanced environmental and safety technologies.

Indeed, Ford is expanding a major XC90 feature, roll stability control, to its Ford brand S.U.V.'s. The technology applies brake pressure to individual wheels to help drivers regain control of their vehicles and is seen as particularly advanced compared with that of rivals.

In tests for roof strength under current regulations, a flat steel plate is placed against one side of a vehicle's roof and pressed down with a force equivalent to one and a half times the vehicle's weight, up to a maximum of 5,000 pounds for passenger cars. The roof must prevent the plate from moving more than five inches.

In 2002, the traffic agency said roof cave-ins of various degrees were a factor in nearly 7,000 deaths and serious injuries a year, with more than half of the cases, about 3,700, involving people wearing seat belts.

"How can we look these 3,700 people in the eye and say roof crush didn't matter?" Stephen R. Kratzke of the traffic agency said in a 2002 interview with The Wall Street Journal. He added that the agency was "going to look very hard" at tougher regulations.

But after objections from domestic automakers, the agency now says new research indicates the problem is not as great, with only 1,400 deaths and serious injuries among people wearing seat belts. The agency has said the modified roof regulation it is considering will save fewer than 50 lives a year.

"There are a lot of scenarios involving rollovers where anything short of a Nascar roll cage is not going to save the occupant," said Rae Tyson, an agency spokesman. "We think there will be some modest benefit from a strengthened roof, and we're attempting to expand the vehicles covered under the standard."

When the original regulation was developed, the traffic agency proposed a test where force was applied to two sides of the roof. But after G.M. found that five of six cars it tested could not pass the test, the company proposed a weaker test that the traffic agency agreed to use.

"I thought it was the lowest possible common denominator that everyone could meet, but I also thought it was a place to start," said Ben Parr, who observed the process as an engineer in G.M.'s automotive safety group in the 1970's. He went on to become director of State Farm's automotive research group until retiring in 1997.

"There's nothing on that car that hasn't been improved since 1971 other than the roof," added Mr. Parr, who was a paid consultant for plaintiffs in a recent rollover case. He called roof strength "the primary safety issue left unsolved."

G.M. declined to comment on Mr. Parr's contention, but said in a statement that "there is no meaningful relationship between roof strength and the likelihood of serious or fatal injury for either belted or unbelted drivers."

Mr. Parr argued that much of the crushing occurs on the second and third points of impact, because the roof of a rolling vehicle is substantially weakened after the first impact, in part because the windshield breaks. This can make rollovers deadly even for people wearing seat belts. "You don't want to wear that roof down around your ears," he said. "That's all there is to it."