By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/31/2005 9:46:20 AM ET 2005-03-31T14:46:20

On an Arizona highway, 21-year-old Jacqueline Morris lost her life five years ago. Her Ford SUV flipped down Interstate 10 after she lost control, crushing her inside.

"The seat belt did not hold her because the roof had collapsed and there was nothing holding the seat belts," says her mother, Yvonne Morris.

Two weeks into their wrongful death suit against Ford, the company settled.

Wednesday, the advocacy group Public Citizen released a new study on "roof crush" accidents. The conclusion: "Roof crush can and does cause catastrophic injury and death. The science is irrefutable."

"This is a vehicle they know is prone to rollover and yet they took the strength out of the roof in the mid-90s," says Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook.

In Virginia, Claire Duncan died of a fractured skull after her Ford Explorer rolled over. Ford claimed she was run off the road and no one could have survived the crash — that roof strength was not a factor.

But the jury ordered Ford to pay $10 million, after finding that Ford was liable. The plaintiffs introduced evidence that during the mid-1990s, Ford had weakened its roofs during redesigns, while maintaining the minimum government standard. And in 1999, after Ford bought Volvo, Volvo was still working to strengthen its roofs.

"I believe that the auto industry has known for years that stronger roofs will save lives," says Claybrook.

For its part, Ford tells NBC News: "Simply strengthening the roof will not affect the outcome of the crash for the simple reason that the injury mechanics (how victims are injured) are not related to how much the roof is deformed in a rollover crash."

But some crash experts disagree.

"There's no question that the strength of a roof has something to do with the ability of occupants to survive a rollover without serious injuries," says Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts crash tests on all model vehicles.

Ford and other experts say seat belts and airbags are also crucial to surviving a crash. Public Citizen says the auto industry has long opposed strengthening minimum roof requirements, but this summer, the government is expected to announce a new standard.

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