Crash-test report backs stronger roofs on SUVs

ByABC News
March 12, 2008, 1:21 AM

— -- 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.

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."

Reducing the death toll