Product Liability

Low auto roof standards are often deadly in rollovers

The American standard for automobile roof strength, which has been in effect since the 1970s, has been “a total, ineffective disaster,” according to automobile expert Byron Bloch in an investigative report by WBNS TV of Columbus, Ohio.

Bloch, whose knowledge of automobile roofs has played a role in court testimonials throughout the country, is not alone in his opinion. The report uncovered other automotive industry professionals who echoed similar thoughts.

Why the chorus of disapproval?

First is the number of fatalities. According to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 273,000 rollover crashes occur every year, killing more than 10,000 people and seriously injuring 24,000 people.

Secondly, there is a simple fact. Automobile roofs can and should be built to better withstand roof crush incidents. The NHTSA currently employs an unrealistic “static crush” test in which a slow moving metal plate bears down on the automobile. If the automobile’s roof can withstand one times the vehicle’s weight worth of pressure, it passes.

Unfortunately, the NHTSA data doesn’t reveal how many drivers experience slow moving heavy weights descending on their cars’ rooftops while driving on our nation’s roads, but I have to assume that the number is pretty close to zero.

Surprisingly, even the NHTSA acknowledged in 2005 that the standard wasn’t good enough, but it has done nothing to raise the bar. Reasons for the delay sound more like a futile case of bureaucracy than a government agency acting to protect people.

A statement from the Transportation Secretary, Mary Peters, issued on October 1, 2008, speaks for itself:

“As stewards of the nation’s transportation system, we take our safety responsibilities seriously, and it is incumbent on us to develop new regulations that optimize safety. We must ensure that any final rules we issue are as successful as possible. Accordingly, we have informed Congress today that we need more time to complete a new roof strength standard that effectively protects motorists.”

“I think it’s a travesty,” said Ben Parr, an engineer who once tested roof strength for General Motors. Even if the NHTSA raises the minimum roof strength by doubling the current standard, it is insufficient. As Parr pointed out, autombiles that pass the static crush test often perform poorly on drop tests which better simulate real life crashes.

Some car makers willfully manufacture cars that can withstand up to five times the minimum pressure set by the NHTSA. Volkswagen’s Jetta has a roof resistance rating of 5.1 and Toyota’s Scion measures 4.6.

No plans to introduce a drop test standard are in the works for the NHTSA. According to WBNS TV, an NHTSA spokesman now claims that drop tests don’t produce “repeatable results,” despite all of the evidence to the contrary and despite the fact that the government would be hard pressed to find one real-life incident of a car being trapped beneath a life-size trash compactor.