WASHINGTON - Paula Lawlor is another Erin Brockovich - except that her main targets are automakers.
Brockovich is the rough-edged, miniskirted activist whose work on lawsuits for residents of a polluted California town was featured in a popular 2000 movie that starred Julia Roberts. Lawlor, also a Californian, is a self-taught researcher and consultant who has helped lawyers win tens of millions of dollars in damage awards for victims of rollover crashes.
Lawlor, 54 years old and the mother of seven children ages 13 to 29, has no formal training in law, engineering or vehicle safety. Yet she is the main sponsor and organizer of a Washington conference this week. It is unabashedly titled the "Emergency World Summit on Roof Crush."
Lawlor said she wants to compel U.S. regulators to write a far tougher vehicle roof-strength standard than the one that has been on the books since 1971. She also seeks a stronger rule than the one the federal government is planning to adopt.
The goal, Lawlor said, is to keep vehicle roofs from collapsing on occupants in crashes.
"There are thousands of lives a year (at stake) - more than a war," Lawlor told Automotive News.
Overall highway fatalities have declined steadily in the decades that government has regulated the industry. But rollover deaths have increased, indicating the roof standard is flawed, Lawlor said.
About 10,000 Americans die in rollovers each year - nearly one-fourth of all U.S. highway deaths.
Scheduled speakers at the summit this Thursday and Friday include crash victims, lawyers, health care professionals and engineers. They come from Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan, as well as the United States. Some are former employees of automakers who have testified for plaintiffs in lawsuits.
A late addition to the program: Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen and a Washington safety activist since the 1960s. Also scheduled to speak is Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. He vouches for Lawlor.
"She's a very good person," Ditlow says. "She's a good organizer. She's not a Washington person."
Members of the safety establishment - automakers, regulators and traditional advocacy groups - seem unsure about what to make of Lawlor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal rule-making agency, rejected invitations to take part in her summit, Lawlor said. A NHTSA spokesman would not comment.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers - which represents the Detroit 3, Toyota and five other automakers - does not plan to send anyone to the summit, spokesman Charles Territo says. Automakers are working with NHTSA on a rule that is based on sound science, he says.
A senior industry safety executive privately dismisses Lawlor as a tool of trial lawyers.
Like other safety advocates, Lawlor favors a roof-crush standard based on a dynamic test - that is, a test that rolls a moving vehicle. The 1971 standard requires, instead, that a metal plate be pressed on a vehicle roof to show it can support at least 1.5 times the vehicle's weight.
NHTSA has proposed raising the figure to 2.5 times vehicle weight and expanding its coverage to vehicles of up to 10,000 pounds gross weight. The agency would immunize automakers from lawsuits if they meet the new standard.
Car companies question whether any dynamic test can produce repeatable results on which to base a standard. They say rollovers are violent crashes that have many variables.
Government data show that only a small fraction of the 10,000 Americans who die each year in rollovers were victims of roof collapse. Many were not wearing seat belts and were ejected from their vehicles or died of other injuries.
Still, the timing of Lawlor's summit seems favorable. In a 2005 planning document, NHTSA said it would adopt its new roof-crush rule in 2006. The agency issued its preliminary proposal in August 2005, but Congress set a deadline of April 2009 for adoption of a final rule.
NHTSA is working on changes to the rule and is expected to issue a revised preliminary proposal this fall.