April 30, 2009 — -- Rollover accidents kill nearly one person every hour on average in this country, a total of 10,000 deaths each year. The accidents are also responsible for a quarter of all serious and catastrophic injuries on the road.
Experts say roof strength is a big factor in these accidents and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is scheduled today to issue a new roof-strength standard for vehicles.
But critics fear the new rule will not go far enough.
Tyler Moody, a star athlete and national merit scholar from Tulsa, Okla, is the kind of example to which critics point. "No matter what he did, the world gravitated toward him," his mother Veronica Moody said.
While Tyler, 18, was driving home from school in Oklahoma in 2003, he passed another car in a way that caused his Ford Explorer to fishtail, slide off the road and roll over. The roof collapsed, crushing him to death.
Fighting back tears, Kevin Moody, Tyler's father, said, "It was such a senseless act that took his life."
Kevin Moody has since been on a mission to persuade the government to strengthen the roof-strength standard that has been in place since 1973. NHTSA requires vehicles to withstand one-and-a-half times their own weight in a test that lowers a metal plate onto the roof. Most cars on the road today pass the test easily, but critics say it's not a real-world test.
Instead, safety experts say drop tests or dynamic tests are better because they mimic what happens in a real rollover. The government says it doesn't use a dynamic test because it has not found one that is accurately repeatable.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 11 vehicle manufacturers, said "it supports NHTSA's goal of enhancing rollover safety, but enhanced roof strength is only one part of that plan."
In a statement to "Good Morning America," the alliance said, "The best way to save lives and prevent serious injuries is to avoid situations that lead to rollovers, in part, through the industry's groundbreaking initiatives including Electronic Stability Control, Lane Departure Warning systems and other driver-assist technologies. Safety belt use is the most effective device for reducing the risk of serious injury or fatality."
Critic: 'There's No Excuse' Not to Have Stronger Roofs
But Paula Lawlor, who created the People Safe in Rollovers Foundation, said manufacturers simply need to make stronger roofs. "They've got to do it," she said. "They've got to fix it. There's no excuse."
The point of contention between car companies and consumer advocates is whether the injury happens when the passenger hits the roof or when the roof is crushed and hits the passenger. General Motors conducted tests in the 1980s called the Malibu tests. GM says its results show the injury occurs before the roof collapses. But activists disagree. They say it shows the injury occurs when the roof collapses with a speed so forceful it breaks the neck.
Another company, Volvo, conducted real-world tests and changed its cars because of it, widening wheel bases and putting more steel in roofs.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety launched a roof strength rating system last month. To get a four-star rating, a vehicle's roof should be able to withstand a force four times its own weight. Such a standard would save thousands of lives a year, the institute said.
Safety experts say Tyler Moody's SUV would have failed the test. "He absolutely should not have died," his father said.
The Moodys sued Ford, the manufacturer of the vehicle their son was driving. After years of litigation, the two sides settled.
But the Moodys say they still want the decades-old, roof-strength standard changed before another hour ticks by and another life is lost.
For more information on the People Safe in Rollovers Foundation, click here: www.peoplesafeinrollovers.org
To read more about the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new roof-strength rating system, click here: www.iihs.org