Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Feds push back roof regulation

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said last week

the agency was conducting additional research

and to make sure it came up with a workable regulation.

"We want to get it right," Tyson said.

NHTSA now hopes to issue rule on strength requirements by late Sept., finalize in July '08.

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

In a notice posted on the Department of Transportation Web site, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would not be able to issue a final rule by Aug. 31 on toughening roof crush resistance standards as it initially promised.

Instead, NHTSA hopes to issue a revised preliminary proposal by late September and finalize it by July 2008, as required by Congress.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said last week the agency was conducting additional research and to make sure it came up with a workable regulation. "We want to get it right," Tyson said.

NHTSA has not changed the federal roof standard for more than 30 years, despite updating most other major auto regulations.

Rollovers account for 3 percent of the nation's vehicle crashes, but about one-third of fatalities. In 2005, rollover deaths increased 2.8 percent to 10,816.

"This crash mode constitutes a disproportionate and growing segment of the nation's highway safety problem," NHTSA wrote in explaining the delay.

In August 2005, NHTSA issued its long-awaited proposed upgrade, requiring that a vehicle roof withstand a force equal to 2.5 times the vehicle weight -- up from the current 1.5 times standard -- while maintaining sufficient head room for an average adult male.

NHTSA estimates the new standard would save up to 44 lives a year and prevent up to 793 injuries. That strikes safety advocates as woefully inadequate. It's a "do-nothing" mandate that "will not address the pressing need to save thousands of lives from rollover crashes," said Gerald Donaldson, research director at Washington-based Highway and Auto Safety.

Some applaud decision

Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, praised NHTSA's decision to take more time to issue a final roof standard.

The auto industry has generally questioned the wisdom of making roofs heavier and stronger, noting tradeoffs in fuel economy and vehicle stability. "We applaud the NHTSA for taking the time to research the issue," he said.

NHTSA has acknowledged its initial assessment that 68 percent of vehicles could meet the proposed standard was inaccurate, in part because the government didn't test the heaviest vehicles.

The auto alliance told NHTSA recently that at least 64 percent of vehicles on the roads wouldn't meet the standard, which means the costs of complying will be much higher than the government estimated.

The alliance also said the new rule would add between 38 to 68 pounds to pickups and 60 to 67 pounds to larger SUVs. Going to an higher standard could add up to 270 pounds for light trucks.

NHTSA said its new timetable is to resubmit its rule to the Office of Management and Budget by mid-June and publish its revised proposal by late September. NHTSA plans to give the public two months to comment.

Vehicle costs would go up

NHTSA has rejected a tougher standard requiring a vehicle roof withstand a force equal to three times the vehicle weight, in part because it would cost automakers too much -- $88 per vehicle, or $1.3 billion. That standard would have saved up to 135 lives a year and prevented 2,500 injuries, NHTSA estimated.

The two-and-a-half-times standard would raise vehicle costs by about $17 each, including higher fuel costs, or about $285 million, NHTSA estimates.

Automakers have asked NHTSA to loosen the proposed rules, exempt some vehicles and change testing procedures. They argue strengthening roofs is not an effective way to prevent deaths in rollover accidents, arguing that proper seat belt use and advanced restraint and stability control systems offer the best protection.

Advocates push tougher tests

Safety advocates disagree, and are pushing for tougher roof strength tests.

NHTSA met with safety advocates recently to discuss alternative test procedures. On Feb. 23, NHTSA officials, including senior associate administrator Ron Medford, met in Goleta, Calif., with advocates touting a new rollover "dynamic" or moving test, as opposed to current tests, where the vehicle doesn't move.

Congress told NHTSA in 2005 it could consider requiring a dynamic test as it upgraded its roof crush test.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who now heads Public Citizen, said a new test would do a better job of assessing the strength. "We don't like to see the delays, but we hope to get a test that lives up to what Congress required," Claybrook said last week.

Claybrook and Robert Lange, a top safety official at General Motors Corp., said NHTSA is considering whether to require "double-sided" roof crush resistance tests. The current test only measures one side of the roof.

This is the latest chapter in a 35-year-old controversy over roof strength regulation known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216.

GM and Ford essentially drafted the regulation as it stands. In 1971, the automakers led an industrywide effort to convince federal officials to adopt a minimum standard for roof strength -- but only after their vehicle fleets failed the government's first proposed test, according to internal documents examined by The Detroit News for a series of stories in 2004.

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