Can Automakers Start Making Rollover Crashes Less Dangerous?

Natalie JaroszewskiJuly 27, 2022 7 minutes

Rollover collisions can result in severe outcomes like traumatic brain injuries, spinal trauma, paralysis, amputations, and even death.

According to national statistics from 2014 to 2018, only 2 percent of vehicles in all traffic crashes were involved in rollover crashes, but 24 percent of all fatalities resulted from rollover crashes.

These statistics demonstrate that rollover crashes pose a serious threat to vehicle occupants.

Evaluation of FMVSS No. 216a, Roof Crush Resistance, Upgraded Standard
November 2020

Why Are Rollovers Often Fatal?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the principal causes of injury in rollovers are occupant ejection and roof crush.

Occupants are able to reduce the risk of ejection through seat belt use, and automakers can provide other ejection mitigation features, such as improved side curtain airbags and advanced window glazing. However, vehicle occupants cannot reduce their chance of injury from a roof crush. Instead, it is up to the automaker to create stronger roof structures.

Naturally, as ejections are shocking and usually fatal, that is the danger most people are worried about, and typically people are only concerned about roof crush if an occupant perished, during a rollover crash, while still restrained by the seatbelt.

A vehicle's roof crushing inwards towards the occupant is an obvious issue as this causes occupants to lose their protective head space, increasing the risk that their heads will impact a vehicle's roof. However, what discussions of rollovers often forget is: that if a vehicle's roof deforms during a crash, the doors, windows, and windshield can break, creating large openings that someone could be ejected through.

Additionally, while someone's best chance for survival in a rollover is to properly wear their seatbelt, just because an occupant was ejected does not mean they weren't wearing a seatbelt. Unfortunately, the G-forces involved in a rollover collision can force a seat belt to break or even unbuckle. Furthermore, a person's arm or a loose item could hit the seatbelt latch, allowing the seatbelt to unbuckle. This means even a safe driver, who always wears a seatbelt, is still at risk of being ejected.

Essentially, a vehicle's roof could crush an occupant and/or raise the risk of ejection. This is why rollovers are so dangerous, and why so many vehicle safety critics are arguing for tougher rollover crash tests.

What Are the Federal Crash Standards to Mitigate Rollover Fatalities?

The dangers of roof crush led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to create the vehicle safety standard for roof crush resistance, in the early 1970s, and then the 2009 update called FMVSS 216a.

FMVSS No. 216a requires that each side of the passenger compartment roof structure resist up to a maximum applied force equal to 3.0 times the unloaded weight of the vehicle in kilograms and multiplied by 9.8, for vehicles weighing less than 2,722 kg (6,000 lbs) and 1.5 times the unloaded vehicle weight for vehicles weighing between 2,722 kg (6,000 lbs) to 4,536 kg (10,000 lbs).

U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Laboratory Test Procedure For FMVSS No. 216a, Roof Crush Resistance

More simply put, a light passenger vehicle's roof must be able to support three times its own weight, and a heavy vehicle's roof must be able to support one and a half times its own weight.

Here Is a Very Basic Idea of What the Test Looks Like

NHTSA measures the weight requirement on stationary vehicles with a rigid plate slowing pushing downwards on the driver's side roof. (A rough sketch below.)

NHTSA then notates the amount of pressure applied once the roof crushes and also notates how much the roof crushed. If the applied pressure is equivalent to or more than the vehicle weight requirement, then the test vehicle passes the roof crush resistance test.

Critics Say That FMVSS 216a Is Still Not Enough

Despite the update, vehicle safety experts, crash data scientists, and non-profit advocacy groups do not agree with the test's requirements. They argue that FMVSS 216a's requirements do not accurately provide occupant safety, because the test fails to account for the dynamic movements in a rollover.

Safety experts and crash data scientists have found that vehicle roofs that surpass FMVSS 216a could still collapse from slightly greater forces. They argue that a vehicle's roof must support the weight of the vehicle and the additional weight of the forces resulting from rollover movements and that three times the weight is not a high enough requirement. They also argue that FMVSS 216a does not provide an adequate safety margin for overloaded vehicles or repeated roof impacts and that these are not uncommon elements of rollover crashes.

Because of these concerns, these vehicle safety experts advocate for further updates to FMVSS 216a. Some of their suggestions are:

  • Require all vehicle roofs, no matter the total weight of the vehicle, to support at least four times the total weight.
  • Adjust the rollover test so a roof crush resistance is measured by physically rolling a vehicle.
  • Require the roof crush resistance test to be conducted without the vehicle's windshield installed (as in most rollovers the glass breaks early in the crash.)

Vehicle safety experts point out that several manufacturers are already creating stronger roofs, like Volvo and BMW, by using many of these suggested test requirements, and these experts say it is irresponsible for other manufacturers not to do the same, even if not federally required. They also accuse automakers of "designing down to standard," or cutting costs by designing lesser quality vehicles because the federal standards allow them to. Unfortunately, that seems to be a fair accusation.

Automakers Rarely Go Above and Beyond on Their Own

Is it fair to ask automakers to produce vehicles better than the federal crash standards? After all, designing a vehicle to meet the federal crash standards is part of the natural engineering process, and automakers are still businesses. The manufacturers must meet the required crash standards while also fulfilling the business's natural desire to make money. Additionally, there is little incentive for automakers to create vehicles better than they have to; it costs them more money.

Simply put, yes. Consumers have every right to expect better quality goods, especially if the means already exist and are economically feasible.

Product liability law allows victims injured by poorly designed products a remedy to recover their damages and/or losses. This means victims can hold automakers liable for the damages their vehicles cause. This, in turn, encourages automotive companies to look at another's safety designs and then use the best possible safety designs.

Unfortunately, changes to federal crash standards are extremely slow coming, and automakers themselves heavily influence these changes. So while the crash standards do not encourage automakers to innovate, victims holding automakers accountable helps move auto safety forward.

Rollover Crash Standards Are a Joke

The truth is that federal crash tests are the minimum standard for a vehicle's performance. Additionally, for all intents and purposes, large automakers are the ones creating these crash safety standards.

Congress recognizes an issue, like the fact that car crashes can be deadly, and sets up an "organization" or "administration" to address the identified issue. Then that administration is responsible for finding solutions. However, just like congress, the newly formed administration members are not experts in the required field. As such, the administration must work closely with the companies and industry players that are experts in that field in order to set standards.

More simply, the US Congress creates NHTSA to address national highway safety. Then NHTSA needs to hire employees to study car crashes and set the minimum requirements that every vehicle manufacturer must adhere to. The newly founded agency doesn't have any technical expertise, so NHTSA hires people from within the automotive industry and consults with automakers to determine what the minimum car crash standards should be.

This process is why auto safety experts are frustrated with the federal crash standards. They say that all the big-name automakers resist any changes to the federal standards as much as possible, but when it becomes obvious change is coming, those very same automakers rush to join the crash standard creation process. As a result, auto safety experts see the federal crash test standards as easy-to-pass tests designed by the largest players in the automotive industry.

So, just because a vehicle passes the crash tests and has a high safety rating does not mean it is a "safe" car. Not only is safe subjective to each individual person, but passing the crash tests only means that the vehicle met the minimum requirements.

What Can We Do While the Crash Standards Are Weak?

If someone is injured by a vehicle that passed all the federal crash standards, the vehicle might still be a poorly designed vehicle. This is why product liability law is so important. Victims injured or killed by defective products deserve justice, and they deserve it right away. Instead of waiting several years (maybe even decades) for the government to force an automaker's hand, a victim can (and in many cases, should) seek out an attorney to consider a product liability lawsuit.

If a vehicle's design is simply bad or could have easily been better, lawsuits against the manufacturer might start to pile up and become a very expensive and time-consuming issue for that manufacturer. Product liability lawsuits don't bring loved ones back from the dead and they don't undo the pain and suffering caused by a crash, but they do provide justice.

What is that justice? Obviously, a lawsuit provides a remedy for victims to recover their damages and/or losses, but a lawsuit could also save others in the future from the same hardships. Avoiding the expenses and time required in a lawsuit is the incentive for automakers to create safer designs.

The Takeaway

Auto safety experts say stronger roofs are possible, but they are not necessarily themselves victims of roof crush crashes, so they must rely on petitions and advocacy to promote federal change. Victims of rollover crashes can stand up for both themselves and fellow consumers, and they can demand increased auto safety directly from the automakers.

Today's vehicle safety tests serve as little more than participation trophies for carmakers. Did the little automaker make a car that could pass an absurdly easy test? Here's your trophy and a juice box. Rather than employing technology they already possess to economically design and build roofs that don't kill their consumers, it seems that too many automakers would rather brag about their worthless trophies in ads. This must stop.