ROLLOVER CRASHES claim more than 10,000 lives annually; they account for just 3 percent of accidents but one-third of vehicle occupant deaths. Side-impact collisions kill another 9,000 people yearly. There are steps that manufacturers could take -- or that the government could require them to take -- to reduce fatalities and injuries from such crashes: adopting technology to make vehicles, particularly sport-utility vehicles, less prone to rollovers; reinforcing roofs so that they aren't crushed in rollovers; installing stronger door locks and shatterproof glass to prevent passengers in rollovers from being ejected; and installing side air bags. Indeed, in pricier vehicles, much of this equipment has become available and even standard.
But for years, and in some cases decades, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has dawdled on tightening these safety requirements. The Senate version of the highway transportation spending bill contains a package of provisions that would instruct the safety agency to get moving on these issues and set target dates for issuing new rules. The House should accept the Senate measure.
The automobile industry, which opposed previous versions, isn't fighting this one. Yet the administration says it's still opposed because, as Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta wrote to lawmakers, "these requirements predetermine timetables, and presuppose scientific and engineering outcomes that have yet to be proven practical or workable." But the NHTSA is already studying these safety issues and preparing to write new rules with self-imposed deadlines even earlier than the Senate measure calls for. What's more, the Senate measure would let the deadline slip if NHTSA said it couldn't meet it. It's hard, therefore, to see why the bill would pose a big problem for NHTSA. The agency first promised to issue a rollover resistance rule in 1973 and has been promising stronger roof standards since 1994. During the wait, SUV rollover deaths were up nearly 7 percent last year. Under those circumstances, congressional prodding is not interference; it is in order.