Although manufacturers have a duty to design their vehicles to provide reasonable occupant protection in foreseeable rollover accidents, they have neglected rollover occupant protection until very recently. The manufacturers mostly ignored rollover crashworthiness since there was virtually no governmental regulation, except for a minimum, ineffectual governmental roof crush standard, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216. The advent of SUVs, which roll over at a higher rate than passenger cars, and recent congressional scrutiny of rollover deaths and injuries have spurred increased attention to this issue from manufacturers.
As part of a vehicle’s structural support system, a roof creates a “non-encroachment zone” or “survival space” that should protect occupants in a crash. If a roof crushes substantially in an accident, occupants may suffer disabling head or neck injuries.
Rollovers are survivable if vehicles provide basic occupant protection. Unlike front or side impact crashes — where the vehicle has to absorb a large amount of energy in a short amount of time — in a rollover, energy is typically dissipated over longer time and distance. Therefore, the forces on the occupants are often lower than in a frontal or side impact, making a rollover survivable with adequate occupant protection.
Vehicle defects that contribute to occupant injury in rollovers include lack of adequate roof and pillar strength; seatbelts that do not safely hold occupants in their seats; seatbelts that unlatch; door locks and latches that fail allowing ejection; lack of glazing in the side or rear window that can help keep occupants inside vehicles; and lack of side curtain airbags, which can prevent ejection.
Different parts of the occupant protection system — such as the vehicle’s roof structure, restraint system, side window glazing, door latches, interior padding, and side curtain air bags — should work together to protect occupants in rollover accidents. When one or more of these components fail or are missing, and occupant who might otherwise have suffered minor injuries or escaped injury altogether may instead be severely injured or killed.
Roof structure. Severe head trauma and spinal cord injuries are probable when a vehicle’s roof collapses into the survival space in a rollover. The entire roof structure should be designed as an integrated safety cage that will protect the occupants’ survival space. This requires structural integrity and strength of the roof system, including the roof pillars.
One of the most common types of injury in a rollover roof crush case is a neck fracture caused by flexion and shear forces produced when the roof crushes down on the occupant.
Other types of neck injuries include axial neck compresion injuries and hyperextension neck injuries:
Brain injury can also occur by intrusion of the roof into the occupant space.
Many manufacturers have ignored vehicle crashworthiness, relying on inadequate government standards. Manufacturers insist that the forces generated by the impact — not a lack of crashworthiness — cause the injury or death. This argument does not take into account that rollovers are among the most benign accidents because the vehicle decelerates over a long distance. Arguing that rollovers are random events that cannot be duplicated, manufacturers rarely conduct rollover tests to guide their roof design or construction.
For many years manufacturers relied upon NHTSA’s FMVSS 216, which set minimum strength requirements for a vehicle’s roof crush resistance. This ineffective standard which was adopted in 1973 did not require manufacturers to conduct dynamic rollover tests on roofs. FMVSS 216 also failed to consider what material the roof is made of and how it is constructed. Consequently, it has led to:
Recently on May 12, 2009, NHTSA upgraded FMVSS 216 and required roof strength to be strengthened. NHTSA wrote:
“. . . when a rollover does occur and the occupants have been contained within the vehicle compartment, it is important for the roof structure to remain intact and maintain survival space.” (Fed. Reg. Vol. 70, No. 90, p. 22350 (May 12, 2009).
NHTSA required that the roofs of vehicles under 6,000 pounds or less withstand three times the vehicle’s unloaded weight with the force being applied to both sides of the vehicle. Additionally, NHTSA now requires a new requirement for maintenance of head room (i.e., survival space) and limitation of roof crush during testing. Fed. Reg. Vol. 74, No. 90, p. 22348-22349 (May 12, 2009).
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