American car manufacturers have known for over 20 years that the seatbelts they use do not safely and effectively protect vehicle occupants in rollover accidents. Car makers have also known for decades that the roofs of their vehicles crush on impact in rollover accidents and cause severe injuries. So what have American automakers done to address these critical safety issues that often result in the death of an occupant or catastrophic injuries? The truth is: NOTHING SIGNIFICANT.
Recently the Society of Automobile Engineers resumed the debate on this issue at a Government Industry Meeting. The automotive industry typically relies upon two older studies conducted in 1983 and 1987 to support their claims that occupants do not suffer head and neck injuries because the roof collapses on them in rollover accidents. The automakers maintain that these injuries are caused by the occupant being propelled into the roof as a result of the force of the crash. Simply stated, auto makers blame their own faulty seatbelts for these injuries and insist that the roof crushing into the passenger compartment is not a factor. The irony of this argument is that automakers have resisted strengthening the roof systems in their vehicles to prevent occupant injury in rollovers by blaming injuries sustained by belted occupants in rollovers on their own defective seatbelts and poor vehicle designs that lack sufficient head room. This is truly incredible. So why do automakers refuse to improve safety design?
The National HighwaySafety Administration (NHTSA) has recently abandoned the findings of these 1983 and 1987 studies and concluded that the lack of roof strength in vehicles causes injuries. The NHTSA has now adopted the argument that roof crush and intrusion into the passenger compartment causes injuries to vehicle occupants in rollover accidents.
Despite these compelling findings, automakers continue to resist safety improvements to their restraint systems including seatbelts and increased roof strength to avoid the increasing number of deaths and injuries in rollover accidents. The fact of the matter is severe intrusion into the occupant survival space in a rollover accident causes these catastrophic injuries and deaths. Defective seatbelts are also a cause.
In America, we typically view ourselves as the frontrunners in product safety and design. However, with respect to auto manufacturing safety and design, American manufacturers lag significantly behind other world leaders. Forty-four other countries have already adopted more real-world dynamic test procedures to determine the integrity of roof structures in vehicles. However, the United States continues to use the static FMVSS220 test requirements which are antiquated. Prominent international auto safety researchers including Raphael Grzebieta from Australia often criticize the failure of the United States to adopt more realistic testing standards. Australia requires the more real-world dynamic test procedure and has implemented 3-point seat belt requirements in transit buses which have nearly eliminated all fatalities in accidents.
US automakers have long recognized that their seat belt designs need to be improved to reduce head-to-roof collisions in crashes. However, automakers continue to oppose the implementation of safer designs to protect occupants in crashes. In order to make American automobiles safe, vehicles require more effective restraint systems, stronger roof structures, and an interior roof design optimized for occupant protection in rollovers. Specifically, US automakers need to decrease the amount of lap belt stretch, implement pretensioners to remove slack in seatbelts, and use cinching latch plates instead of sliding latch plates. Automobile safety experts have been recommending these changes for years. However, US auto manufacturers continue to resist this call to safety. The truth is that current automobile designs are dangerous and defective and manufacturers continue to place profits over people.
About the Author: Thomas Sheridan is an expert in personal injury law and founder of Sheridan & Murray.