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Tougher Rules Urged for Auto Roofs

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page E01

Safety advocates said yesterday that they found evidence linking neck injuries to the crushing of roofs during vehicle rollover accidents, contradicting claims by automakers that making roofs stiffer would not make drivers safer.

The advocates called on federal regulators to review the data before issuing a new standard for roof safety in the auto industry, the first update of the rule in more than 30 years.

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Rollovers are a small portion of all crashes in the United States each year but account for nearly a quarter of all traffic fatalities, according to government statistics. Most rollovers involve SUVs or pickups, which have a higher center of gravity than cars and so are more prone to tipping over. Roof crush during rollover accidents contributes to about 7,000 serious or fatal injuries every year, according to government statistics.

During a conference call with reporters, Martha Bidez, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said she and two research partners examined results from four rollover tests on Ford Explorer SUVs, obtained through lawsuits against Ford Motor Co. Documents showed that the company told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year that test dummies recorded neck injuries before the roofs on the trucks began to collapse, suggesting that roof strength had nothing to do with safety, she said.

"Objective data, however, completely refutes that conclusion," Bidez said at the event organized by Public Citizen, an advocacy group that has been active in auto safety. Information from sensors on the dummies and on the vehicles actually showed neck injuries occurring after the roof began to collapse, she said.

"Ford -- indeed, it is an industry-wide problem -- misled both the scientific community and more importantly . . . the federal government regulators of the importance of a meaningful roof crush standard," she said.

Tab Turner, a lawyer from Little Rock who has represented a number of people suing Ford, paid more than $200,000 for the analysis of the Ford data, he said during the conference call.

Ford said in an e-mailed response that though it had not yet had the chance to thoroughly analyze the study, "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 and other automakers have maintained that occupants are more likely to be injured by being thrown around the cabin of a rolling vehicle, and that simply stiffening the roof would not make a significant difference.

"There continues to be misconceptions of basic rollover mechanics," the company said yesterday. "Years of testing show strengthening the roof will not affect the outcome of the crash for the simple reason that the injury mechanics are not related to how much the roof is deformed in a rollover crash."

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