Danger Overhead: Crushed Roofs
Thousands killed, hurt as auto roofs collapse
By Bill Vlasic, and Jeff Plungis / The Detroit News
Penny Shipler remembers the Chevrolet Blazer rolling over and over, then the sound of the roof crashing down over her head.
When it finally stopped, she tried to move. “I was thinking get out, I had to get out,” she said. “I thought I was getting out.”
But the Nebraska woman was paralyzed, her spinal cord crushed on impact with the metal roof that caved in around her.
It’s the hidden risk in any rollover accident, whether the roof stays intact or collapses with catastrophic results.
Each year, an estimated 7,000 people are killed or severely injured in rollovers in which the roof crushed, according to federal statistics.
Yet Detroit’s Big Three automakers, armed with political muscle and reams of research, have fought costly upgrades to a 33-year-old roof-strength standard, even while their own European operations build and test stronger roofs.
General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. essentially drafted the regulation as it stands.
In 1971, the automakers led an industrywide effort to convince federal officials to adopt a minimum standard for roof strength — but only after their vehicle fleets failed the government’s first proposed test, according to internal corporate documents examined by The Detroit News.
The industry wanted “something that will allow our vehicles to pass,” Peter Bertelson, who headed Ford’s crash-test programs in the late 1960s, told The News.
Critics say the industry-backed test, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216, is too weak to save lives, particularly as rollover-prone SUVs and pickups proliferate.
Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, under pressure from safety advocates and Congress, says it’s finally time to fix rule 216 and plans to propose a tougher standard later this year.
The stakes for automakers are enormous. Changes in roof structures could add cost and weight to millions of vehicles.
“It’s been known for quite some time that this is a standard that needs updating,” NHTSA Chief Dr. Jeffrey Runge told The News.
His opinion is hardly shared by members of the Big Three.
“There is no correlation between roof strength and the likelihood of injury in a rollover crash,” said Robert Lange, GM’s executive director for vehicle structure and safety integration.
That position seems incomprehensible to Shipler, a quadriplegic since her accident seven years ago.
“If they don’t think the roof matters, let them live a full day as a quad and see what it entails,” said Shipler, 36, who won an $18.6 million lawsuit against GM last year.
Juries in Texas, California and Nebraska have repeatedly rejected Big Three-backed studies that deny a link between crushed roofs and injuries.
With huge judgments coming in, including a $225 million verdict against Ford in a roof crush case, safety groups have stepped up their campaign for a new roof-strength standard.
“We think the auto manufacturers’ basic claim is not true,” said Gerald Donaldson, director of the consumer group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Roof strength is absolutely critical.”
NHTSA is looking hard at recent crash data to establish a direct relationship between collapsing roofs and catastrophic injuries.
In filings with NHTSA, GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler contend there is no need for new standards.
But it is an industry divided, with the Big Three’s own European operations — Opel, Saab, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz — performing rollover tests that far exceed the 216 standard.
NHTSA publishes safety ratings based on frontal- and side-impact crash tests, but consumers don’t know how their vehicle’s roof will react to a rollover — until it happens.
And it can occur in an instant, such as when Patrick Parker hit a deer and rolled his Ford F-250 pickup in northern Texas, and ended up a quadriplegic.
“People have been telling NHTSA that 216 is inadequate for years, and they have done nothing,” said Dena Parker, Patrick’s wife. “How many more people have to die or end up like Patrick?”
NHTSA backs down
The consequences of crushed roofs were clear to federal regulators as early as 1969.
“Approximately 1,400 motor vehicle occupants were killed in that year by impact with roof structure in rollover accidents,” the National Highway Safety Bureau, NHTSA’s predecessor, said in 1971.
Engineers in Detroit grappled with their own analyses of rollover accident data. An internal study by Ford’s Automotive Safety Research Office — dated July 8, 1968 — reached “some very basic” conclusions.
“People are injured by roof collapse,” the Ford study said. “The total number of nationwide deaths and injuries cannot be estimated but it is a significant number.”
With the government considering its first roof-strength standard, GM and Ford conducted their own tests — rolling cars over on ramps, dropping them upside down, loading pressure on the A-pillars that frame the windshield.
A series of inverted drop tests at Ford produced startling results, said Bertelson, the former manager of Ford’s Impact Dynamics Department.
“We dropped 40 or 42 different cars on their roofs in 1968,” said Bertelson, now retired and living in Arizona. “The engineers who worked for me were just shocked. The roof strength was terrible.”
At the urging of GM and Ford, federal regulators proposed a static test that applied specific pressure to both A-pillars. But on Jan. 8, 1971, five of six GM vehicles failed the test, according to documents on file in the Shipler case.
Two months later, Ford’s Working Safety Committee reported that “current 1971-72 vehicles will not meet the requirements of the notice.”
Ford put a price tag on passing the government’s initial test. “All car lines, as currently programmed, would require new A-pillars at a cost of $9 to $15 per car,” Ford’s Safety and Emissions Programs Group said in a document dated March 22, 1971.
GM, Ford and Chrysler protested the two-pillar test. Ford questioned whether crushed roofs even posed a danger — a direct contradiction of its own 1968 study.
“The data do not implicate top intrusion as an automotive safety problem,” Ford said in its April 5, 1971, comments to the agency.
NHTSA relented, reducing the load angles of the pressure test and limiting it to just one side of the vehicle.
But the agency did not back down from its original premise.
“For non-ejected front seat occupants in rollover accidents,” NHTSA said, “serious injuries are more frequent when the roof collapses.”
Trucks, SUVs at risk
When rule 216 went into effect in 1973, passenger cars outnumbered light trucks almost 5 to 1. But with the explosive growth of SUVs and pickups, light trucks make up more than half of all new vehicles sold today.
And with more trucks come more rollovers.
In the 216 test, one side of the roof must support one and a half times the unloaded weight of the vehicle. For cars, there is a 5,000-pound limit.
To address the onslaught of bigger trucks, NHTSA attempted in 1989 to apply the regulation to vehicles weighing up to 10,000 pounds. But the Big Three lobbied against it and NHTSA gave in, agreeing only to a 6,000-pound limit.
In effect, the heaviest trucks and SUVs, mainstream products like the Dodge Durango, Lincoln Navigator and Chevy Tahoe, are technically exempt from the 216 test.
Safety experts contend that automakers routinely “design down” to meet the bare-minimum requirements of 216.
“Some manufacturers take weight out to reduce their strength-to-weight ratios down closer to the minimum,” said Steve Forrest, senior engineer of the firm Safety Analysis and Forensic Engineering, which advises plaintiffs in lawsuits against automakers.
In 1999, Ford twice reduced the thickness of the steel in the A-pillars of its heavy-duty F-series pickups, according to internal documents subpoenaed in Patrick Parker’s 2002 lawsuit against Ford.
The savings, the documents said, totaled $2.42 per truck.
The F-250 pickup that Patrick Parker was driving is one of the heaviest trucks on the market and not covered by rule 216.
“What is the rationale in thinking if it’s heavier that it doesn’t have to meet the standard?” said Dena Parker. “It’s just crazy.”
Ford declined interview requests on rule 216, referring inquiries to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based industry trade group.
But the alliance, which also represents GM, DaimlerChrysler and other automakers, has little to say publicly.
“We are conducting field research on roof strength, and it would be inappropriate to comment before we have collected or analyzed the data,” said Eron Shosteck, an alliance spokesman.
DaimlerChrysler issued a brief statement on 216: “Chrysler Group tests its vehicles beyond the requirements of the federal standard.”
At GM, Lange said roof strength is one of many variables considered in designing a new car or truck.
“We manage very deliberately the overall mass of the vehicle and its body structure,” he said.
European manufacturers, including GM’s Saab and Opel units, employ high-strength steel to improve the strength of roofs. But concerns about extra weight and cost preclude using stronger steel in mass-market domestic vehicles.
“We try to provide safety performance without burdening consumers with added costs,” Lange said.
He said GM does use high-strength steel in the United States “when appropriate,” but would not identify specific models. One is the 2004 Cadillac SRX, a luxury SUV that a GM product brochure says has extra steel “to provide superior occupant protection.”
Safety cages with stronger roofs have been common for years in European brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen and Volvo. To test roof strength, prototypes are rolled off a moving dolly to simulate actual accident conditions.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers rejects so-called dynamic rollover tests, calling them “hopelessly unrepeatable.” Yet dynamic tests designed to simulate real-world crashes are routine for European brands.
Why test beyond the minimum standard of 216?
“If you look at Volvo’s history in safety, our target has always been to overachieve,” said Hans Wikman, project manager for Volvo’s XC90 sport utility vehicle.
Rule 216 has been under study by NHTSA since the early 1990s, but the path to a new roof-strength standard has taken a tortuous route.
While roof-strength has been on NHTSA’s agenda for years, the agency has focused on other priorities such as air bags, child safety seats, and frontal- and side-impact standards.
An official public comment period on 216 has dragged on for 28 months, yielding thousands of pages of documents submitted from both sides of the issue.
NHTSA Chief Runge pledges to propose a new standard this year, but could be hamstrung by a battle in Congress over tying new safety rules to sweeping federal highway legislation.
“There’s some distrust there because NHTSA has waited so long to upgrade 216,” said Sean Kane, whose consulting firm, Strategic Safety, works with plaintiffs’ lawyers. “But it’s an industry problem, and it’s getting worse.”
Bertelson, who has testified in several lawsuits, looks back on Ford’s early roof-strength tests and questions why a federal safety standard written in the 1970s is still on the books.
“It’s long overdue,” he said. “This has been on my conscience for 30 years.”
A mother’s struggle
And in a tiny tract house on the outskirts of Lincoln, Neb., Penny Shipler wonders what her life would be like today if not for the accident that ravaged her spinal cord on the night of Sept. 11, 1997.
A single mother who waitressed at a local restaurant, Shipler accepted a ride home from work that night from a friend, Kenneth Long, in his 1996 Chevy S-10 Blazer.
Just before midnight, Long lost control of the SUV on a deserted stretch of highway.
The vehicle rolled at least four times, according to court testimony. The roof on the driver’s side suffered marginal damage, and Long walked away from the wreck.
But the roof crushed down 8 inches on the passenger side. When police arrived at the scene, Shipler was hanging upside down, paralyzed from the neck down, her lap-and-shoulder belt still buckled.
Shipler sued GM and Long. Last September, after a five-week trial, a Lancaster County jury awarded Shipler $19.5 million in damages, a figure later reduced by the judge to $18.6 million.
GM is appealing the verdict. During the trial, the automaker argued that no roof would have stayed intact during such a violent accident. But the jury rejected the defense.
“I felt GM was guilty,” said juror Deena Douglas.
“The roof is like an eggshell. You’re in a tank with an eggshell on top of your head, which is the most important part of your body. I don’t get it.”
The appeal process could drag on for two years, said Dan McCord, Shipler’s attorney. For now, Shipler and her 6-year-old son, Keenan, subsist on about $800 a month in Social Security and disability checks.
She can move her arms, but has no feeling in her torso and lower body. Confined to a motorized wheelchair too big to fit through her bathroom door, Shipler counts on the help of her little boy to make it through each day.
A life-care specialist testified at her trial that Shipler will need at least $10 million worth of medical care and assistance in the future.
“People say, ‘Oh my God, you got $20 million,’ ” she said. “It’s not much fun, I don’t think, to be a millionaire and be a quad.”
On a snowy February afternoon, Shipler waited outside her home for a city bus to take her to the bank, a journey that takes her six hours to complete.
She tries not to be bitter that the deformed roof of an SUV sentenced her to a life of paralysis.
“Of course you get angry, but you can’t spend your life angry,” she said. “If (GM) does admit guilt or responsibility, there’s a lot they’re going to have to change.”
But it all seems unreal to her, how an obscure, decades-old federal safety rule still stands after thousands of injuries and deaths in rollover accidents where roofs crushed.
“Their point right now is to worry about the cost of what it’s going to take to change the vehicle,” she said. “Well, look at the cost of what happens after the vehicle crashes.”