WASHINGTON, D.C. – Federal regulators have proposed new rules to bolster car and truck roofs, an area of increasing concern because of the rising number of deaths in vehicle rollovers. But the proposal appears to fall short of requirements in recently passed highway legislation and is far less than what many safety advocates had hoped for.
The proposed rules would subject large SUVs, pickup trucks and vans to roof integrity regulations for the first time, and they would bolster current testing procedures. Vehicle-roof strength has been one of the most contentious auto safety issues in recent years. General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. have argued that the crushing of a vehicle's roof during a rollover makes little difference in determining whether an occupant is injured or not. They say their own testing shows that roof-related injuries generally occur when people are thrown into a vehicle's roof the instant before it crushes.
Roof strength has become a more prominent issue because of the proliferation of SUVs and large pickup trucks. Because those vehicles ride higher off the ground than cars, they are at more risk of rollovers, which claim more than 10,000 lives a year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that roof cave-ins of varying degrees cause the deaths of nearly 600 people annually who are wearing seat belts and another 800 serious injuries. But the new proposal would save only a small fraction of those lives, preventing 13 to 44 deaths a year, according to federal estimates. The cost for design changes would be about $11.81 a vehicle, or $88 million to $95 million.
Under current federal test procedures, which were drafted in the early 1970s, a flat steel plate is placed against the driver's 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 lbs. for passenger cars. To comply, a vehicle's roof must prevent the plate from moving more than five inches.
Under new proposed testing procedures, the force would be increased to 2.5 times a vehicle's weight. Instead of the five-inch requirement, the roof must stay intact enough to avoid contact with the head of a crash test dummy.
Current rules also apply only to vehicles weighing up to 6,000 lbs. New rules would apply to vehicles up to 10,000 lbs., including Hummers, large pickup trucks and 15-passenger vans.