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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, beat expectations recently by doubling the minimum roof crush resistance standard for most vehicles.
For the last three years, NHTSA toyed with a lower increase that would have had a negligible effect.

But beating low expectations doesn’t mean NHTSA has raised the bar enough for auto makers. Rollover accidents will still be deadly and preventable.

When the rules are fully in effect in 2017, vehicles weighing up to 6,000 pounds will have to withstand a force equal to 3 times their weight. Vehicles weighing 6,000 to 10,000 pounds will have to withstand a force of 1.5 times their weight, a measure known as a roof’s strength-to-weight ratio.

Of the 10,000 fatalities each year from rollover accidents, NHTSA attributes roof crush as the cause in 667. NHTSA expects the new rule to save 135 of those lives and prevent 1,065 nonfatal injuries each year.

Laudable as those goals may be—especially given a previous proposal to increase the minimum standard to just 2.5 times the vehicle’s weight for automobiles of 6,000 pounds and less—don’t be fooled into thinking this is the best the U.S. government could do to protect consumers. These rules will increase the cost of a vehicle by just $54. Yet compliance with the new standards would not even earn a vehicle the score of “acceptable” under roof-crush ratings published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

To be rated acceptable, a car must withstand a force of 3.25 times its unloaded weight. The threshold is ratio of 4 for a “good” rating.

NHTSA calls its new standard “tough.” Even the Institute called it “bold.”

Really? The standard puts most cars somewhere between “marginal” and “adequate” while requiring half that protection for drivers and passengers in many SUVs and light trucks. But the rule does beat expectations. The previous standard stood for 36 years, and NHTSA’s proposed upgrade in 2005 would only have increased roof resistance for lighter vehicles to 2.5 times their weight.

But research shows a strength-to-weight ratio of 2.5 would have minimal effect on auto fleets that mostly exceed that number anyway. The same research shows that a ratio higher than 3 is achievable and would dramatically improve safety.

A report by the Institute studied 12 small four-door passenger cars and crash data for those cars in 14 states. While NHTSA estimates its strength-to-weight ratio of 3 would save 135 lives, or just over 20 percent of the deaths attributed to roof crush nationwide, the Institute concluded that a ratio of 3.9 would save 32 percent of the lives lost in the 14 states it studied.

Not only does that result suggest that the NHTSA underestimates the impact of its new rule, it also demonstrates that the agency could have done much better by consumers–and so could auto manufacturers.

*Thank you to law clerk Cory Reiss, 3rd year student at Wake Forest University School of Law, who contributed this blog.

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