WASHINGTON - Two key senators are warning federal regulators that their effort to use tougher roof-strength rules to block rollover lawsuits against automakers may not be legal.
The warning to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. They are the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"We are interested to learn how NHTSA concluded that preemption of state law was the intent of Congress," the senators said in a Nov. 17 letter. They also said they doubt the agency's proposed roof rule would reduce deaths and injuries in rollovers.
The rebuke came just before NHTSA closed the public comment period on its proposal. The agency seeks to overhaul 34-year-old standards for vehicle roofs to resist collapsing in rollover crashes.
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson would not respond directly to the senators' letter.
NHTSA unveiled its proposal in August. Key elements include:
- A roof would have to withstand 2.5 times the vehicle's weight, up from 1.5 times.
- The standards would apply to vehicles with gross vehicle weights of as much as 10,000 pounds, up from 6,000 pounds.
- NHTSA would continue to test vehicles by pressing a metal plate on the roof over the driver's seat.
- An automaker's compliance with the standards would shield it from lawsuits.
Public Citizen said NHTSA's primary objective seems to be saving the industry money.
"We're just deeply disappointed the way the agency has handled this," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, at a Nov. 21 news conference.
Claybrook said the proposal would keep victims of poorly designed vehicles from seeking damages in the courts.
Also addressing the press conference was Rev. Larry Harris of Pittsgrove, N.J. He became a quadriplegic after a 1997 rollover crash of his 1987 Ford Econoline van.
Harris said the roof of his van would have met the tougher proposed standard and still would have collapsed.