Seat Belts Not Enough to Save Lives in Rollovers


Man's death mirrors thousands each year


Noyes family photo

Clyde "Ray" Noyes of Nebraska died when the roof of his pickup crushed in a rollover accident.

About this series

 

This three-day series is the result of a three-month investigation by Detroit News reporters Bill Vlasic and Jeff Plungis working together with News photographer Brandy Baker.

Vlasic and Plungis reviewed thousands of pages of court records and government documents and interviewed crash victims, safety experts, attorneys and federal officials. Both Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG declined interview requests. General Motors Corp. agreed to an interview with one of its safety executives.

The News team reported the series in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Corpus Christi and Childress, Texas.


Noyes family photo

Chuck Noyes is pictured as a child with his dad, Ray, who was a U.S. Navy chief petty officer, nuclear plant engineer, youth wrestling coach and grandfather.

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

Federal standards only require automakers to test one side of the roof. The roof crushed on the driver's side of Ray Noyes' vehicle during the second impact of the rollover.

 

LINCOLN, Neb. — He was cruising over a slight rise on Highway 33 when Clyde “Ray” Noyes saw a car stopped up ahead, waiting to turn into a farmhouse driveway.

Noyes pulled his Ford F-150 SuperCab pickup left to pass. But an oncoming car was approaching fast.

He cut back sharply to the right. The pickup’s wheels skidded into a low guardrail. Then, the 4,600-pound truck flipped on its side, and rolled over several times before coming to rest in a shallow culvert on the edge of a cornfield.

And when a Lancaster County sheriff’s deputy got to the accident scene at 7:06 p.m. last July 11, Noyes was dead in the driver’s seat, his lap-and-shoulder belt buckled and the roof of the F-150’s cab crumpled down over his head.

It was a split-second traffic maneuver that turned disastrous, one of nearly 7,000 deaths and serious injuries linked each year to crushed vehicle roofs.

But Noyes’ death is also a chilling example of how seat-belted motorists are killed or injured when their vehicles’ roofs crush around them.

An average of 3,700 deaths and serious injuries occur annually in rollover accidents in which the victims are belted and the roof is crushed, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

No subset of rollover statistics is under greater scrutiny by NHTSA, which is expected this year to propose a tougher new roof-strength standard to replace the current rule enacted back in 1971.

“The biggest increase in rollover deaths is coming from belted occupants,” said Sean Kane of the research firm Strategic Safety. “It is the key correlation between roof-crush and injury severity.

For more than 30 years, Detroit’s Big Three automakers have maintained that crushed roofs do not cause fatal or catastrophic injuries, but simply reflect the violent circumstances of certain rollover accidents.

But that explanation provides little solace to the Noyes family.

“Accidents can happen, but Ray didn’t have to die,” said his widow, Sally Noyes.

Ray Noyes, 65, was an American success story — an Eagle Scout, a U.S. Navy chief petty officer, nuclear-plant engineer, youth wrestling coach, husband, father and grandfather.

He died on a rural road he’d traveled countless times, a ruler-straight stretch of two-lane blacktop cutting through the farms and pastures of southeastern Nebraska.

But it could have been any rollover anywhere: a momentary loss of control, a vehicle upended, a roof crushed — and a life lost.

Ray Noyes had more than 200,000 miles on his old-model Toyota pickup when he finally decided to buy a new truck.

And like any project he took on, Noyes analyzed it in detail.

“Ray was an engineer, a nuclear engineer,” said his stepson Mitch Krenk. “He researched everything to death.”

Born in 1937 in the tiny Nebraska town of Imperial, Noyes was a self-made man with a tireless work ethic. He joined the Navy at age 19, spent 10 years on active duty, and returned to earn degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering.

A stocky, crew-cut former wrestler, Noyes had a lifelong love of machinery. “On our first date, he took me to Brownville (Neb.) to see the big hole in the ground for the Cooper nuclear plant,” Sally Noyes said.

“Ray was a hardware man,” said Larry Harrold, his longtime supervisor at the Energy Northwest public utility in Richland, Wash. “He had a nose for staying on top of problems and coming up with solutions.”

Methodical and meticulous, Noyes poured over product specifications of pickup trucks in the spring of 2000. For an engineer whose favorite book was “Why Materials Fail,” selecting a new truck was no small deal.

“We’d stop at a store and he’d be down on his knees looking at tires,” said his son Chuck Noyes. “He just really thought things through.”

Noyes settled on a bright red, 2000 Ford F-Series SuperCab with leather captain chairs, 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels, and a special towing package. When he retired from Energy Northwest, Noyes packed up his Ford and moved his family back to their roots in Nebraska.

But he was never far from a toolbox, tinkering in the garage and building a home office exactly like the chief’s quarters on a naval warship. Mostly, Noyes enjoyed the fruits of retirement — spending time with old pals, hunting at his cabin in Wyoming, and cheering on his grandsons at sporting events.

It wasn’t hard to pick his booming baritone out of a crowd at a high-school basketball game.

“Every time my son made a basket, Ray would jump up and yell, ‘All right!’ ” Krenk said. “I finally told him he didn’t have to cheer during warm-ups.”

 

Red lights flashing

 

On Friday nights, things get lively at the Veterans Of Foreign Wars Post 4959 in Crete, Neb. While the vets kick back and swap stories, their wives cook up a spread of ribs and side dishes for supper.

Ray and Sally Noyes came early for “Grill Menu” night at the VFW last July 11, bringing along Sally’s 90-year-old mother, Alice Weiss. After they ate, Sally headed off to a meeting for her 50th class reunion of Crete High School.

Noyes took his mother-in-law home, then started east on Highway 33 for the 20-minute trip back to Lincoln.

The weather was clear and warm. The speed limit was 55 mph. Noyes was halfway home when it happened.

He saw the car stopped in front of him and reacted. If he had lost control just up the road, his F-150 might never have rolled.

Except he hit the only guardrail for miles. The F-150’s right wheels dug into the rail’s three metal cables, and the truck rolled over onto its right side, according to the police report.

The passenger side took the first blow, but the roof on the driver’s side bore the brunt of the crash.

On impact, the roof over Noyes crushed down at least 10 inches, nearly to the back of his seat. The roof on the other side hardly was deformed.

Lancaster County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Horalek witnessed the rollover from down the road, and was on the scene almost instantly. Noyes, he said in his accident report, was wearing his lap-and-shoulder belt.

Noyes was taken to Bryan Lincoln General Hospital West, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The certificate of death lists “cardiac arrest” and “trauma from MVA (motor vehicle accident)” as the causes.

Later that evening, Sally Noyes rode down Highway 33 with her sister, and passed the flashing red lights of police cars on the shoulder of the road.

“I said, ‘There must have been an accident,’ ” she said. “ ‘It looks like a red pickup.’ It never dawned on us ... .”

She arrived home to find the front door locked and the house dark. When she got inside, the phone was ringing. There had been, she was told, an accident on Highway 33.




Crash-test findings

 

 

When he saw his father’s F-150 at the storage yard, Chuck Noyes was shocked at the damage on the driver’s side roof.

“The roof looked like a crinkled aluminum can, just crushed on one side,” Chuck Noyes said. “It was like a karate chop just chopped it. The passenger door opened up fine.”

Auto-safety experts agree that no two rollover accidents are identical, and that trucks roll differently than passenger cars.

But certain characteristics appear frequently in rollover conditions.

The leading side of the roll very often suffers less damage than the trailing side of the vehicle. If a car or truck rolls to the right, the left side of the roof crushes with more force.

And the trailing side — where Ray Noyes sat — is where the worst injuries occur.

In a 1994 study of 58 rollover accidents, former General Motors Corp. engineer Don Friedman cataloged where injuries occurred in relation to the leading side of the vehicle.

Nearly 85 percent of the deaths and severe injuries happened on the trailing side, and the majority of those victims wore seat belts.

Friedman recently expanded the study to 800 rollovers from 1992 to 1998, and found that 90 percent of deaths and injuries occurred on the trailing side.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216, which is under review by NHTSA, only requires automakers to test one side of the roof.

Pressure equal to 1.5-times the vehicle’s weight is applied gradually. If the roof crushes five inches or less into the passenger compartment, it passes 216.

Safety advocates contend that testing one side, particularly with the windshield intact, fails to show how the second side will perform in a rollover.

“The roof has got to be able to withstand what is a predictable and serious problem with these vehicles,” said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of technical policy and advocacy for Consumers Union.

Detroit’s Big Three automakers for decades have argued that crushed roofs have nothing to do with serious injuries in rollovers. Instead, they say injuries are caused by occupants “diving” into the roof before it collapses.

Ford Motor Co. has declined interview requests from The News on the topic of roof strength. But Ford’s position on the issue is clearly spelled out in government documents.

In a 2001 filing with NHTSA, Ford said “crash data suggesting the presence of roof deformation and occupant injury does not establish a causal connection between the two.”

Moreover, Ford rejects the notion that rule 216 needs updating after more than 30 years.

“There is no added benefit to occupant safety with increased overall roof strength,” the company said.

But safety experts say the growing percentage of belted rollover victims seems linked to the strength of the roof — or lack of it.

Ten years ago, 16 percent of the people injured in rollovers were belted, said Ken Digges, a professor with the National Crash Analysis Center at George Washington University.

Now NHTSA estimates that belted occupants represent 55 percent of deaths and injuries in roof-crush, rollover cases.

“As the percentage of belted occupants rises,” said Digges, “roof crush becomes more important.”

The metal A-pillars that frame the windshield are critical to the strength of a vehicle’s roof. on Noyes’ truck, the A-pillar on the left side was nearly flattened. The roof itself came down directly over the driver’s seat.

Noyes was a formidable man, a 6-foot-2, former University of Nebraska heavyweight wrestler in robust good health. His lap-and-shoulder belt held him in his seat — right in the path of the crushed metal roof.

“The greater the roof crush, the higher the likelihood of head injuries,” Digges said.

“We have studied two levels of roof intrusion ... five inches and 10 inches,” he said. “We found that the higher level had more frequent head impacts.”

 

Family takes action

 

Did the roof of his F-150 kill Ray Noyes?

“There was massive blunt head trauma, which can cause brain-stem separation,” said Timothy Eves, a lawyer for the Noyes family.

A wrongful-death lawsuit against Ford will be filed within weeks, Eves said. Sally Noyes struggled with her decision to sue, but felt a lawsuit would help expose the problem of crushed roofs

“You have to get their attention and their attention is lawsuits,” she said. “I’m thinking of other people. How many more will this happen to?”

The family can’t accept that a hard-core engineer bought a brand-new, top-of-the-line truck that couldn’t protect him in a rollover.

“How often did he buy a new vehicle? only twice in a lifetime,” said his stepdaughter Carrie Vitullo. “It makes you mad. I think about it every time I see a Ford truck on the highway.”

Noyes chose the Ford F-150 only after looking at every comparable pickup on the market.

“Ray thought he was buying the best, toughest truck out there,” Krenk said. “Most people buy a full-size pickup because it’s tough. You know, it’s Ford tough.”

After the accident, Krenk and Chuck Noyes went to the scene and picked Noyes’ tools out of the high grass. His two sisters, Barbara and Josephine, found his billfold. “When they came back, they were shaking,” Krenk said.

At his funeral, a video tribute was shown to a soundtrack of his favorite singer, Willie Nelson. There was Ray hunting in the mountains, celebrating with friends and family, posing proudly in his Navy uniform.

When he goes hunting now, Chuck Noyes always takes his favorite gun — a .338-caliber rifle that his father machined himself on a small lathe. It was a gift for his high-school graduation.

“The barrel, when he got it, was just a big chunk of steel,” he said. “It took him two years to get it done. He wasn’t fast, but he was very meticulous.”

In the basement of her home, Sally Noyes keeps the “chief’s quarters” just as her husband left it. Naval commendations are framed on the walls. Engineering manuals line the bookshelves. The carpet is the same shade of green that Navy captains have on a ship at sea.

“That was Ray,” she said. “He had to have the green carpet.”

Each year, an average of 253,000 vehicles roll over in the U.S. More than 26,000 people are killed or seriously injured. In 6,900 cases, there was roof-crush present in the vehicle. And in 3,700 instances, the victims were belted.

Ray Noyes was one of them.

 

Part 2 of 3 You can reach Bill Vlasic at (313) 222-2082 or bvlasic@detnews.com.