Rollover crashes constitute 3 percent of passenger vehicle crashes, but about one third of the fatalities. Injuries can occur even if there is minimal roof deformation after a crash. At other times vehicle occupants are unharmed even if there is significant roof deformation. A recent study performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has demonstrated the inadequacy of the proposed federal rule to increase a vehicle’s roof strength from 1.5 times to 2.5 times the weight of a car.
The study concludes that 212 of the 668 deaths involved in rollover accidents in 2006 could have been prevented if SUV’s had roofs as strong as the best one it tested, more than 3 times the vehicle’s weight. Increasing the standard from 1.5 to 2.5 would have saved 108 lives.
The results are a stinging rebuke of the automakers’ longstanding denial of any connection between roof strength and passenger safety. Auto officials often assert that roofs don’t crush into people’s heads when vehicles roll; rather, they argue, the force of the crash propels motorists into the roofs. Or they note that cars must allow so much slack in safety belts to prevent seat-belt-related injuries that the belts can spool out and passengers will strike the roof whether or not it collapses.
The IIHS conclusion is also an indictment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to upgrade its standard for roof strength for cars since 1973 and for other passenger vehicles since 1994, despite a surge in the sale of SUV’s, which are more than twice as likely as cars to roll over. In the opinion of USA Today, the results suggest that safety advocates and plaintiff’s lawyers have been correct all along in warning about the need for increasing roof strength.
IIHS believes that the Nationwide Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) underestimated the number of lives that would be spared by raising the roof strength standard. Stronger roofs keep doors and windows from opening. The present standard involves pressing down on a large steel plate on one side of the vehicle with a force equal to 1.5 times its weight. (strength of weight ratio or SWR). The roof must not crush more than 5 inches. While it has been proposed to change the SWR to 2.5, many argue this is insufficient. Increasing the standard from 1.5 to 2.5 would have saved 108 lives, while increasing it to 3.16 would save 212 lives.
Many criticize the current test, which involves pressing on only one side of the vehicle’s roof with the windshield intact stating that it does not imitate real life crashes such as a “roll over” or sharp drop.
A NHTSA study from July 2004 (Roof Crush Analysis Using 1997-2001 NASS Case Review) stated [g]enerally, it was found that roof deformation was most severe on the side of the vehicle opposite the side that makes first contact with the ground. The far side of the roof collapses in actual rollover crashes, inflicting massive injuries on people sitting there. It is also recommended that NHTSA remove windshields out of the vehicles before conducting the tests since windshields always break immediately in a crash.
According to Public Citizen, the NHTSA test yields misleadingly minimized results because:
(1) it uses the wrong pitch angle: 5 instead of an angle of 10 or more that SUVs and pickups pitch forward to since they are front-heavy. The low pitch angle for the platen allows the B-pillar (the support beside a front-seat occupant shoulder) to take up the load. In an actual rollover, however, force is concentrated on the more forward A-pillar;
(2) the dummy’s head position is not realistic. In the NHTSA test, the test dummy’s head is straight up, whereas in actual rollover crashes the occupants head is thrown forward, under the collapsing A-pillar section of the roof;
(3) The test ignores the speed of the roofs intrusion. When a weak A-pillar buckles, it caves into the occupants survival space at speeds up to 22 mph, inflicting severe injury.
Rear-end Collisions: The IIHS has also concluded based upon tests it has performed that the risk of sustaining a neck injury in a hit-in-the-rear accident is lower if seats and head restraints are rated good. The key to reducing whiplash injury risk is to keep an occupants head and torso moving together. This is because unsupported, an occupants head will lag behind the forward torso movement that occurs at impact, and the differential motion causes the neck to bend and stretch.
Thus the higher and closer a restraint is, the more likely it will be to prevent neck injury in a rear collision. the study is the first time seat/head restraint ratings based on dynamic tests conducted by the Institute have been compared with real-world neck injury results.
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