Good News/Bad News on New Roof Strength Rule

Yesterday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced its long-awaited new rule requiring stronger roofs in vehicles in an attempt to better protect passengers in rollover crashes. The rule, which updates the original standard set in 1971, was proposed in 2005; a court order required NHTSA to finalize the rule by April 30.

The good news is that NHTSA abandoned the Bush administration’s plan to use the new rule to rob consumers of their right to sue if injured in a rollover crash. The 2005 proposal – in blatant contradiction with the Motor Vehicle Safety Act – called for the preemption of state positive and tort law.

In the final rule, NHTSA said, “We have reconsidered the tentative position presented in the [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking],” and said that, during the public comment period, “Consumer advocacy groups, members of Congress and State officials, trial lawyers, consultants, members of academia, and private individuals strongly opposed” preemption. (More on preemption here.)

Unfortunately, the details of the new standard leave something to be desired. NHTSA is giving the auto industry until model year 2016 to come into full compliance with the new standard. Carmakers will have to begin phasing in the new standard with 2013 models, but only 25 percent will have to meet the new standard. Since some popular cars already exceed the new strength-to-weight ratio (more below), improving cars with weaker roofs is still a distant prospect.

As for the standard itself, NHTSA doubled the required strength for roofs. Roofs will now have to withstand three times the vehicles weight. Previously, the strength-to-weight ration was 1.5.

But the new standard does not go far enough, safety advocates say, and the roofs of many new cars can already withstand three, four, or even five times the vehicle’s weight. (According to NHTSA, the 2006 Volkswagen Jetta's roof has a strength-to-weight ratio of 5.1.) NHTSA says the new standard “will prevent 135 fatalities and 1,065 nonfatal injuries annually.” While that’s certainly good news, 10,000 Americans die every year in rollover crashes.

Auto safety expert and friend of OMB Watch Byron Bloch has produced a video that shows exactly why consumers need a dramatic upgrade in roof strength. Check it out:

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