Rollovers: Death, Brain Damage and Quadriplegia - The Failure and the Fault of Roof "Standards"
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Rollovers: Death, Brain Damage and Quadriplegia - The Failure and the Fault of Roof "Standards"

The failure of the roof of a car or truck is the most likely failure to cause death or permanent injury and the roof is, without doubt, the least crashworthy part of a vehicle. In fact, roofs are so soft that when test dropped upside-down a mere 12 inches the result is total crush that can cause death, permanent brain and spinal cord injuries.

Most rollovers occur due to tripping. SUVs, because of vehicle instability, will "trip" when a mild turning movement in one direction is followed by a quick correction in the opposite direction. The roll that follows causes the vehicle to be tossed and to land on its roof on the side opposite the roll. That is why SUV drivers and passengers are twice as likely to be killed in a rollover than those in a standard vehicle.

Although all rollover death and injuries occur while vehicles are moving, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] in 1973, mandates a "standing" test. Officially called a "static" test this "safety" rule has been in place since the 1974 model year for cars and the 1995 model year for light trucks and vans.

The standard provides that "a force of one and half times the empty weight of the vehicle or 5,000 pounds, whichever is less, be slowly loaded onto the roof over the A pillar, the front roof support that holds the windshield in place. Weight is added to a steel plate approximately 3 feet wide and six feet long that is placed at an angle over the roof line. A roof passes even if it collapses five inches.

With increased safety awareness in the 1960s of crashworthiness, seat belt restraint systems, headrests, and gas tank safety, safety engineers focused on protecting the passenger compartment to increase survivability by balancing the interplay of controlled crush and occupant restraint. Even though is well known that roofs are extraordinarily soft, that even belted passengers are at great risk for serious injury in a rollover, and the greater the roof crush the more severe the injury, the government has never mandated a dynamic roof crush test. Even U. S. Government safety consultants have reported that a "roof has to be strong enough to resist severe compression when the car rolls over." Kahane, An Evaluation of Door Locks and Roof Crush Resistance of Passenger Cars, NHTSA DOT HS 807 849 (1989). Materials perform differently when subjected to dynamic forces found in a real world collision. But the government's static test standard ignores this longstanding and well-known engineering fact.

Because making roofs stronger increases the weight of vehicles, decreases the number of "miles per gallon" and increases vehicle cost, Original Equipment Manufacturers refuse to strengthen roofs. Instead, OEMs defend roof failure claims by arguing that high speeds and impacts are responsible for deaths and injuries, not the amount of roof crush. This convenient argument plays on the simple argument that "speed kills" while the truth is that the rate of deceleration is the controlling factor. It is not how fast you go, but rather, how quickly you stop that is critical.

Stiffening roof supports would only add 50 pounds to a vehicle and would only cost approximately $250, but could prevent 5,000 deaths and 5,000 spinal cord injuries a year. Friedman, et al, Roof Collapse and the Risk of Severe Head and Neck Injury, Experimental Safety Vehicle Conference, November 1991, Paris, 91-S6-0-11.

OEMs claim that death, brain damage and spinal cord injuries are caused before the roof collapsed into the passenger's headroom and that the victim was thrown into the roof by centrifugal force before the vehicle landed on its roof. Only a handful admit, such as Volvo and Saab, that passengers should be protected by a safety cage that preserves a safe passenger zone.

With the avalanche of SUV rollover cases and the widespread knowledge that SUVs are inherently unsafe when drivers engage in life-saving maneuvers, Ford will be offering rollover sensors and rollover air bags on its 2001 SUV models. And it should. Ford's Explorer, while undergoing handling and evaluation testing as patrol vehicles by the San Francisco Police Department in the parking lot of Candlestick Park, tripped and nearly rolled, as confirmed by the San Francisco Chronicle.

All four wheel drive vehicles designed for off road travel and, by definition, are expected to roll. All could provide rollbar protection for all passengers by making the A and C pillars rollbars extending across the roof of the vehicle, thereby insuring that in a roll the roof would not crush down to the level of the door handles and would provide passengers with a safety zone free from roof crush intrusion.

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