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Study Ties Deaths To Crushed Auto Roofs

Mar 31, 2005 | The Detroit News

A new analysis of Ford Motor internal crash tests released Wednesday contends that crushed roofs in rollover accidents are a direct cause of deaths and catastrophic injuries.

The report, authored by an engineering professor at the University of Alabama and paid for by $200,000 from Tab Turner, contradicts federal testimony by Ford and other automakers that no correlation exists between deformed vehicle roofs and head and neck injuries sustained in rollovers.

The report comes as federal regulators are in the final stages of proposing the first significant upgrades in roof-strength standards in more than 30 years.

The Detroit News reported last year that an estimated 7,000 people are killed or injured annually in rollover accidents in which the roof was deformed, according to federal statistics.

The study of four rollover tests of Ford Explorers conducted in 1998 and 1999 found that the roofs collapsed before injuries occurred to crash-test dummies, according to University of Alabama-Birmingham professor Martha Bidez.

The findings dispute the assertions by automakers that vehicle occupants are injured when they "dive" into the roof during a rollover accident.

In her report, Bidez said that "significant deformation occurred prior to peak injury." The data, she said, establish "a clear causal relationship" between head and neck injuries and crushed roofs.

Ford said in a statement that it had not yet analyzed the study but criticized previous work done by Bidez. "It appears to be based on previous material prepared by Martha Bidez, which is seriously flawed, unscientific and it misinterprets the data she is relying on," Ford said.

The automaker repeated its previous position that roof strength is not a key factor in preventing rollover injuries and fatalities.

"Simply strengthening the roof won't improve the safety of SUVs and passenger vehicles in rollovers," Ford said.

Ford and other automakers face dozens of pending lawsuits related to roof strength in rollover accidents.

On March 18, a Jacksonville, Fla., jury ordered Ford to pay $10.2 million to the family of a woman killed in an Explorer rollover crash where the roof collapsed. Ford has said it plans to appeal the verdict.

A NHTSA spokesman said Wednesday that proposed changes to roof-strength rules first enacted in 1971 will likely be made public this summer.

"We have completed our work on a proposed new standard," said Rae Tyson of NHTSA. "It is undergoing final department review and we should have something out in June or July."

Tyson said the agency had not yet seen the study presented Wednesday.

In the report, Bidez and two associates analyzed data from sensors and video cameras used to document four separate rollover crash tests conducted for Ford by an outside supplier in 1998 and 1999.

In the tests, the Explorers were placed on an angle on a moving dolly that accelerated to 30 miles an hour and then stopped, forcing a rollover.

Data from the tests first surfaced in litigation against Ford, and was referenced last year by Ford in testimony to NHTSA.

According to Bidez, the data show that the Explorer roofs collapsed before injuries were recorded by crash-test dummies. "One-hundred percent of the time, roof-crush preceded the catastrophic injuries measured," Bidez said Wednesday. "Not only was there a relationship established, it was 100% of the time."

One prominent auto-safety advocate said the report underscores the need for tougher federal standards. "Roof strength is absolutely critical to saving lives and preventing injuries in rollovers," said Joan Claybrook, president of Washington-based Public Citizen and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Claybrook said Ford and other automakers have "misled" NHTSA by denying any link between roof strength and injuries.

She further criticized the 34-year-old NHTSA roof-strength standard, in which static pressure is applied to one of the A-pillars framing a vehicle's windshield.

Claybrook advocated so-called "dynamic" tests like those Ford performed internally in 1998 and 1999, in which a vehicle is actually rolled over under controlled conditions.

Tyson declined to say what type of test NHTSA will recommend in its proposed revisions to the roof-strength standard.

However, he said regulators "have a lot of problems" with dynamic tests because they are difficult to repeat precisely.

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