Divergent Data Muddle Debate

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WASHINGTON  As it prepares to seek tougher roof-strength standards, the federal government is searching for answers in a sea of divergent research.

Most of the research into the impact of crushing roofs has been generated in the course of high-stakes personal injury lawsuits.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers and safety advocates contend crushing roofs during rollover accidents are deadly. Automakers counter with studies that show no cause-and-effect relationship between collapsing roofs and deaths and injuries.

But little independent analysis is available.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which plans to propose tougher roof-strength regulations later this year, is working to complete its latest study on the correlation between weak roofs and injuries.

Independent safety groups also are weighing in.

Leonard Santos, executive director of the Santos Foundation, a small nonprofit devoted to auto safety, recently awarded a $400,000 grant for research on roof strength and rollover injuries to George Washington University’s National Crash Analysis Center in Ashburn, Va.

“We saw a serious problem that wasn’t getting a lot of attention," Santos said.

Ken Digges, director of the George Washington University roof-crush project, said he is using the money in part to refine a computer model that shows what happens to vehicles and occupants in rollover crashes. The final report summarizing three years of research into roof-crush accidents will be completed this fall.

The research so far shows that roof strength is an important safety factor, but improved seat belts and interior padding are needed as well to mitigate injuries.

"That means you’ve got to do something about roof crush," Digges said.

The debate in the United States has international implications. The Australian government has looked at the U.S. roof-strength standard and concluded it was too weak to provide a significant benefit.

George Rechnitzer, an engineer who worked as a senior safety researcher at Australia’s Monash University, first looked at the standard 15 years ago. He said it is tragic that the U.S. debate has dragged on.

"There’s been an obfuscation of the real issue. It’s been a disgrace that these smoke screens have been put up and the real problems have not been seriously dealt with."