Government looking at tougher standards for vehicle roofs to cut down on rollover fatalities

Wednesday, November 7th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is considering changing how vehicle roofs are tested in hopes of better protecting people in rollovers, by far the deadliest type of highway accident.

The testing standard hasn't changed in 28 years and officials acknowledge it doesn't mirror what really happens when a vehicle overturns.

The current test involves placing a steel plate on the roof at an angle, to represent contact with the ground during a rollover, and applying 1 1/2 times the vehicle's weight. The vehicle passes if the roof caves in less than 5 inches.

``The test is totally inadequate and desperately needs to be upgraded,'' said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. ``In the real world, when the car is moving, there is much more weight that is going to be placed against the roof in a rollover.''

The test is required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but conducted in-house by automakers. Every type of car must pass to be sold in the United States.

Sean Kane of Strategic Safety, a group that researches automotive safety issues for attorneys who sue automakers, agreed the test is too easy.

``The effect is that manufacturers build their vehicles to meet the standard, but don't consider the real-world forces in a rollover accident,'' he said.

NHTSA recently put out a public request for alternative test suggestions. In the notice, the agency acknowledged vehicles that perform well in the current test ``do not appear to better protect occupants from more severe roof intrusion in real-world crashes.''

Rollover crashes killed 9,873 people last year, accounting for nearly a quarter of all U.S. traffic deaths. A person involved in a rollover is four times more likely to die than if in a vehicle struck from the front, rear or side, according to NHTSA.

Scott Schmidt, manager of vehicle safety regulations for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, questioned whether requiring stronger roofs will reduce those figures. He said a rollover is by definition a very serious accident likely to produce injuries.

``The extensive roof crush is often not the cause of injury but is a result of how severe the crash was,'' he said.

Schmidt said automakers are looking at ways to prevent rollovers and better protect occupants when they do happen, such as more interior padding and air bags in the roof.

As it gathers public input, NHTSA is considering several test options. Among them is one in which a vehicle would be flipped, a method favored by many safety advocates but that NHTSA acknowledges is hard to control and repeat because so many variables can affect a rollover.

``A rollover is probably one of the most complex crashes around,'' Schmidt said. ``To characterize the rollover test in the real world, you would really need something like a suite of tests and then you are getting into something that is unmanageable.''

Another option would be to drop the vehicle on its roof, but that involves a difficult procedure for suspending the vehicle and turning it over. NHTSA also is considering changing the current test so more pressure is applied by the steel plate.

NHTSA will accept public comment until early December. The agency has no timetable for making changes.

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