WASHINGTON - The two U.S. automakers' associations have called on federal safety regulators to scuttle vehicle-rollover research.
Instead, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should focus on other ways to improve vehicle safety, says a petition filed jointly by the American Automobile Manufacturers Asso-ciation and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
The petition is backed by an industry-funded study of 'untripped' rollovers, or rollovers not triggered by a collision with another vehicle or object.
The study, by Buffalo, N.Y.-based Calspan Corp., contends that the number of untripped vehicle rollovers is far smaller than NHTSA assumes.
When it began its research last year, NHTSA estimated that untripped rollovers account for about 10 percent of the 220,000 rollover crashes that occur each year.
NHTSA officials said then that untripped rollovers were enough of a problem by themselves to warrant the research. By focusing on a small piece of the rollover pie, NHTSA officials said, they might learn more about the whole.
But Calspan says its analysis of crash data shows untripped, on-road rollovers account for only about 2 percent of rollover crashes. And some percentage of those involve drinking and driving or reckless operation, the study contends.
Jeffrey Garber, principal research engineer associate at Ford Motor Co., says the number of rollovers attributable solely to steering would be less than 0.5 percent, which is 'below the noise level' of the data.
'The point is, it's a very small number,' he says.
In their joint letter to NHTSA, the two automaker groups argue that continuation of the agency's research is unlikely to provide a basis for a regulation or meaningful consumer information about rollovers.
'(We) urge the agency to focus on more common types of real-world rollovers and ways to address the largely environmental and behavioral factors that underlie them,' the letter states.
Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says NHTSA was wrong to focus only on untripped rollovers in the first place.
'That is a completely spurious distinction,' he says.
NHTSA's limited research was a message to manufacturers that it does not intend to disturb the designs of their high-profit trucks, which might require lower bodies, different suspensions and wider tracks to avoid all kinds of rollovers, Donaldson says.
But Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for AAMA and former associate administrator at NHTSA when it conducted its previous study of rollovers, says he does not expect the agency simply to walk away from the issue.
A rollover, usually tripped, occurs at some point in crashes that cause nearly a quarter of all traffic deaths, he observes. Nearly three-quarters of those crashes involve rolls of 360 degrees or more.
In other words, he says, they are extremely violent crashes.
'Let's go out and try to understand what's going on with tripped rollovers,' he says.
'The failure has been to determine what combination of design characteristics might result in your being tripped or not tripped. No one has been able to find the answer to that question.'