By the end of the month, the NHTSA will probably institute a new set of regulations requiring stronger roofs for cars, trucks, and especially larger SUVs.
The need for such changes has been a matter of disagreement between the auto industry and safety groups. Automakers have argued that strengthening roofs does not improve safety on the top-heavy SUVs that tend to rollover more frequently, but whose luxury price tags translate into big profits.
Safety advocates have taken the position that roof strength standards must be more demanding and they will push for tougher regulations and more effective tests that simulate an actual rollover. They contend that the current standard has resulted in weak roofs that are directly responsible for thousands of rollover deaths, particularly in SUVs.
Deaths in rollover crashes, which account for more than one-third of automobile accident fatalities, have increased in 2004 to10,553 from 10,442 in 2003.
Addressing these concerns, the federal rules will apply to large sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks like the Chevrolet Suburban, the Dodge Ram and the Ford Expedition. Currently, the law exempts any vehicle over 6,000 pounds.
Although the new rules will affect future automobile models, they will not serve to end numerous clams automakers already face over the issue of roof strength in the context of ongoing personal injury and wrongful death cases around the country. Juries in Texas, California, and Nebraska have already awarded millions of dollars in damages to rollover crash victims or their survivors.
In a recent Florida trial concerning the rollover of a Ford Explorer, evidence showed that Volvo had made strengthening the roof of its SUV, the XC-90, a priority during the design process. The Volvo documents directly contradicted Ford’s longstanding claim that roof strength was unrelated to injury in a rollover crash.