Crash-test report backs stronger roofs on SUVs

— -- For years, the strength and safety of some auto roofs have ignited fierce debate.

Some carmakers have denied any connection between roof strength and passenger safety. And regulators have struggled to find a direct link. But independent safety advocates have long argued that roofs crush too easily in rollover crashes, causing avoidable deaths.

Now comes a sobering conclusion in a report to be released Wednesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that suggests safety advocates and plaintiff's lawyers have been correct all along. It concludes that more than 200 deaths could have been prevented in rollovers in 2006 if just a few more SUVs had roofs as strong as the best one it tested.

The institute's conclusion is a stinging rebuke of the automakers' longstanding position. It also amounts to a rejection of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's go-slow approach. NHTSA hasn't upgraded its standard for roof strength since 1971, despite a surge in the sale of SUVs, which are more than twice as likely as cars to roll over. NHTSA estimates that a plan it's finalizing to upgrade its standard would save only 13 to 44 lives a year.

"What we do know from this study is that strengthening a vehicle's roof reduces injury risk and reduces it a lot," says IIHS President Adrian Lund.

The institute estimates that people in SUVs with roofs as strong as the top-rated Nissan nsany Xterra face up to 57% less risk of serious injury or death in a single-vehicle rollover than those in the 1999-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee or 1996-2004 Chevrolet Blazer. The 1996-2001 Ford fExplorer was also among the SUVs that the institute said had the weakest roofs.

Using data from 12 states, IIHS researchers compared injury and death rates in four-door SUVs. It tested and rated only models without stability control or side-curtain air bags as standard equipment. Those two fairly new technologies help prevent rollovers and the injuries they can cause. (This was to prevent vehicle differences from skewing its results, IIHS says.) The vehicles tested were sold from the mid-1990s until about 2004. The institute tested older models so there were enough crashes for them to estimate injury risks.

Ford chief safety engineer Steve Kozak notes that along with stability control, Ford includes side-curtain air bags that stay deployed in rollovers, tensioners in seat belts that keep people seated during rollovers and seat-belt reminder buzzers — all of which help cut the risk of injury in rollovers.

Chrysler, which owns the Jeep brand, notes that IIHS reported last year that the Grand Cherokee actually has a lower fatality rate in rollover crashes than the Xterra. But IIHS spokesman Russ Rader says Wednesday's report controlled for factors that influence the chance of a rollover so it could isolate the link between roof strength and injury risk.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major automakers except Honda, calls the IIHS report "flawed."

"Unfortunately, there remains no definitive answer as to what effect roof strength has on injury risk in rollover crashes," the alliance said. General Motors gmwould not comment beyond the alliance's statement.

Reducing the death toll

About 35% of deaths to occupants in car crashes involve rollovers. That amounted to more than 10,500 people in 2006, federal data show. The 212 deaths that IIHS said could have been prevented that year with stronger roofs would have reduced fatalities in those 11 SUV models that year by about one-third.

NHTSA's Rae Tyson declined to comment on the report, noting that NHTSA is working on its proposed rule to upgrade roof safety. But Tyson says NHTSA has spent years addressing every aspect of rollovers. "Our concern about rollover fatalities has overwhelmingly been that the problem we continue to have is people who don't wear safety belts," Tyson says. And, "We've put an incredible amount of effort into trying to keep the rollover from happening in the first place."

Even though its vehicle had the best roof tested, Nissan says it doesn't entirely accept the IIHS' conclusion about the significance of roof strength. "Risk of injury or death doesn't depend on strength of the vehicle roof, but it's the overall seriousness of the crash," says Bob Yakushi, Nissan's director of product safety.

Few issues are more contentious — or litigious — in auto safety than what's known as "roof crush." The problem entered the legal spotlight in the early 1980s, after the Ford Pinto in which 20-year-old Kelly Sue Green was riding hit a horse near Portland, Ore. The animal was thrown onto the roof of the damaged car; the roof then collapsed onto Green's head, killing her, according to news reports. A jury ordered Ford Motor to pay Green's husband $1.475 million.

Since then, automakers and consumer advocates have debated the likely role that auto roofs play in deaths and injuries in rollovers. The acrimony has risen along with the popularity of SUVs. The advocacy group Public Citizen has led the attacks on automakers about the issue and has long urged NHTSA to upgrade its 37-year-old standard. (Public Citizen is backed, in part, by individual donations from plaintiffs' lawyers.)

After 18-year-old Tyler Moody lost control of a Ford Explorer Sport in 2003, the vehicle rolled over, crushing the roof. His family's attorney, Clark Brewster, and expert witnesses in a 2006 case told a jury that the crash compressed his body so much that it cut off his breathing. The autopsy listed "positional asphyxiation" as the cause of death. The jurors responded with a $15 million damage award. (The award was later thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Claire Eagan, who said she ordered a new trial because Brewster "prejudiced" the jury with his comments.)

"He was completely collapsed in a folding position, like you'd fold a jackknife," says Brewster, who's retrying the case starting this June. "And the rollover was relatively gentle."

In a statement, Ford said: "Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family, but this accident was a result of reckless driving. Tyler Moody was an exceptional young man, but unfairly blaming Ford for the driver's mistakes only compounds the tragedy."

NHTSA first proposed upgrading its roof strength rule in 2005. Last month, after pressure from safety advocates and victims' families, NHTSA requested comments on a tougher plan. It would involve testing both sides of a vehicle's roof.

The government has required since 1971 that roofs on cars be able to hold more than 1.5 times the vehicles' weight. (The standard was extended to cover SUVs and pickups in 1991.) In 2005, NHTSA proposed raising that figure to two times the cars' weight. Now, it's considering up to three times — something advocates have urged.

Automakers "build cars as if the roof is never going to touch the ground," says Carl Nash, a former NHTSA official who works as an expert witness in rollover cases against car companies.

Robert Shull, deputy director for auto safety at Public Citizen, says NHTSA underestimates the effects stronger roofs would have. For example, he notes, the agency doesn't attribute fatalities to roof crush if the deaths occur after a door opens or a window smashes during a rollover and the passenger is totally or partially ejected. Shull argues, though, that a weak roof can also lead indirectly to rollover deaths and injuries.

"When (a vehicle) rolls, you're causing the whole system to be compromised," Shull says. When a roof can't handle the weight of a car, he notes, the side pillars alongside the windshields and between the doors must bear the car's weight and can begin to crumble.

"After the first landing, the glass is going to start breaking," Shull says. "The doors get distorted. Once you fix that roof-strength standard, you're going to minimize the risk of ejection and partial ejection."

Lund, of the IIHS, agrees: "Stronger roofs keep doors and windows from opening." As a result, he disputes NHTSA's suggestion that people not using seat belts won't likely be helped much by stronger roofs.

Auto officials often assert that roofs don't crush into people's heads when vehicles roll; rather, they argue, the force of the crash propels motorists into the roofs. Or they note that cars must allow so much slack in safety belts to prevent seat-belt-related injuries that the belts can spool out and passengers will strike the roof whether or not it collapses.

"Real-world data and scientific studies confirm injuries are sustained before any significant roof crush occurs during a rollover," says Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese. GM safety chief Robert Lange said in a letter to the editor in The Detroit News in 2002: "Good science … has conclusively demonstrated that there is no relationship between roof strength and the likelihood of occupant injury given a rollover."

To Kevin Moody, whose son was killed in the 2003 rollover, evidence to the contrary has been plenty convincing for years. He complains that car companies have managed to fool juries and regulators with their "diving defense" — that people are hitting roofs, not the other way around.

"It's unconscionable that (automakers) would deprive compensation to people who have catastrophic injuries and death," Moody says. "The only reason they hit the roof in the first place is because the structure was collapsing."

Tyler Moody was driving the Explorer Sport with a "for sale" sign in the window as a favor to his aunt, who owned the vehicle. In its statement, Ford says Moody was traveling about "70 mph around a curve with a speed limit of 35 mph when he lost control of the vehicle."

Brewster, Moody's lawyer, says the teen was actually going between 40 and 43 mph when his vehicle rolled over onto grass. Kevin Moody says the "recommended" speed limit on the curve was 30 mph. The roof on Moody's side collapsed to the steering wheel.

A father's consuming issue

The roof-crush issue consumes most of Kevin Moody's time when he's not running his jewelry stores. On Sept. 6, which would have been Tyler's 23rd birthday, Moody stood all day outside the Senate office buildings in Washington with his wife and daughter in 100-degree heat, giving aides to members of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee 12-pound metal boxes filled with scientific evidence on the importance of strong roofs.

Moody says he spent $15,000 filling and delivering the boxes with DVD players holding a disc with expert witness' analysis of roof crush, an 8-by-10-inch photo of their son along with the crushed Explorer he died in, a marble plaque about Tyler and books on roof crush.

Tom Baloga, BMW's bmwvice president of engineering, contends that people's heads bounce all over the inside and even outside of vehicles in rollovers, making it impossible to conclusively determine how someone died without an in-depth investigation of each crash. And he says he thinks some of the money it would take to upgrade roofs could be better spent on safety technologies, such as radar and sensors, that could detect hazards and prevent crashes in the first place.

One problem with IIHS' work, Baloga argues, is it could "push expectations" about how many lives could be saved.

"We should be spending the resources on systems that give the maximum benefit," he says.

Lund of the IIHS concedes that automakers aren't all wrong on the roof-crush issue. He acknowledges that safety belts let people move too much in rollovers, and when there isn't enough headroom, you can be injured even if the roof doesn't crush. And he agrees that "diving happens."

"But we also think you're likely to dive into the roof when it's crushing, too," Lund says. "It simply buckles in quickly and causes the injuries."

Still unclear is the role of seat-belt use in rollovers. Tyler Moody was belted. But two-thirds of those killed in rollover crashes aren't. Yakushi says IIHS should have excluded from its study fatalities involving people who weren't wearing belts, because of the likelihood that roof crush wasn't the cause of death.

Victims and advocates reject that assertion. They argue that the issue is simple: No matter how a motorist comes into contact with a car roof, everyone would be safer if the roofs were less likely to crush.

Paula Lawlor, a roof-crush consultant who works with plaintiffs, says stronger roofs would aid both belted and unbelted motorists.

"You could save thousands of lives a year," says Lawlor, who founded the advocacy group People Safe in Rollovers. "People are dying totally unnecessarily."