Who You Calling "Marginal"?

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
who you calling marginal

Results from the IIHS’ latest small SUV roof crush test are making the rounds of the autoblogosphere, and as usual the spoonfed information is being dutifully regurgitated in the name of consumer safety. What goes largely unreported is the fact that the IIHS is gleefully moving the roof crush goalposts, a unilateral decision with little benefit to consumers and a host of unanticipated consequences. Current roof crush standards mandate that vehicle roofs must support 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle, and have been in effect since 1973. The IIHS has been campaigning for years to increase government roof strength standards, and an uprated standard of 2.5 strength-to-weight ratio is currently being considered by the NHTSA. So where does the 2.5 standard rate with the IIHS? “Marginal” is the score that the IIHS gives to vehicles meeting this not-yet approved standard. Huh?

Only four of the 12 small utes tested scored a “good” on the IIHS scale: Subaru’s Forester, VW’s Tiguan, Honda’s Element and Jeep’s Patriot. And what did they have to do to climb that mountain? Support four times the vehicle’s weight while buckling less than 5 inches. That’s two and two-thirds times tougher than the current federal minimum and just under twice as tough as the proposed federal minimum.

So why the roof-crush zeal from the IIHS? More than 10,000 people a year are killed in rollovers, say the insurance industry-funded boffins. And, “our research shows that a strength-to-weight ratio of 4 reflects an estimated 50 percent reduction in the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollover crashes compared with the current federal standard of 1.5.” Yes, in a rollover crash. Therein lies the rub.

Improved roof crush standards improve the chances of surviving a rollover, but as our Bob Elton pointed out way back when, forcing up roof crush standards actually increases the likelihood of rollovers occuring in the first place. More roof reinforcement raises a vehicle’s center of gravity, making it far more likely to roll. And what’s the point of making vehicles safer in the case of a rollover if they become more likely to roll in the process? Preventative medicine (stability control, driver training) and smarter rollover safety equipment (curtain airbags) are the answer, not the IIHS’s blind adherence to roof crush standards.

And the consequences of the IIHS’s roof strength fixation are not limited to the increased chances of rollovers. By more than doubling federal standards in its testing, the IIHS is pushing OEMs into a corner where safety and efficiency begin to trade off. As automakers scramble to meet uprated (and far more nationally significant) CAFE standards, the IIHS’s desire to see more roof and pillar steel stand in their way.

And despite these major tradeoffs to the IIHS’s agenda, the Institutes’ own research shows that roof strength is improving anyway. “Manufacturers have made structural improvements to earn better front and side ratings,” says the IIHS report. And though they admit that these overall safety improvements have improved roof crush performance, the IIHS’ insistence on the 4 times vehicle weight standard means only four vehicles receive a “good” rating. Not “outstanding” for having performed at over two times the federal standard, just “good.”

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  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Mar 25, 2009

    Give me useful data and let me the consumer make my own choice. This car has the minimum safety but I am allowed to buy it. Let people make their own choices and if safety is important to the consumer then those unsafe vehicles will not make a profit. FWIW I have several several unsafe vehicles - rear engine VWs (including van), convertible, motorcycle, and an old CR-V which would likely fail the current tests. Big deal. In every case I drive with my eyes open, distractions at a minimum, and I'm always aware of the dangers my vehicles pose to me. The VW Westfalia is getting some upgrades so it will pass the "moose test". Swaybars and 15" tires are a start. Same for the Beetle. I think if we make people too confident in their vehicles then they begin to pay attention to the act of driving less. They get sloppy. Not saying we need to put people in 1949 Chevy pickup trucks with the laundry list of dangers those offered but when I had mine I was keenly aware of the peril the truck posed in a crash. And I sold it too.

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on May 05, 2009

    If there are 10k rollover deaths, there are probably many times that number of injuries, including head and spinal. It is always important to remember that head injuries can destroy or reduce a person's ability to earn a living, can interfere with their social life, etc. Miserable.

  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )
  • Thehyundaigarage Yes, Canadian market vehicles have had immobilizers mandated by transport Canada since around 2001.In the US market, some key start Toyotas and Nissans still don’t have immobilizers. The US doesn’t mandate immobilizers or daytime running lights, but they mandate TPMS, yet canada mandates both, but couldn’t care less about TPMS. You’d think we’d have universal standards in North America.