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Seat belts offer little protection in rollovers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Seat belts offer inadequate protection in rollover crashes, a consumer group said Monday, citing government data that showed 22,000 people wearing belts died in rollovers between 1992 and 2002.

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said Congress should require new seat belt and vehicle safety standards as part of a highway spending bill lawmakers expect to complete this summer.

“Most Americans would be shocked to learn that there are no federal safety standards for belts in rollovers,” said Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The government requires belts to fasten over the lap and shoulders and to provide protection in a 30-mph crash test. However, no tests are done to determine how belts perform in rollovers.

Seat belt standards were adopted almost 40 years ago, when rollover crashes were rare. With the rise in popularity of sport utility vehicles, which are more prone to overturning, the death rate from such accidents has grown. It is now one in every four deaths, or 10,600 people each year, of whom about 2,000 a year were wearing seat belts, Public Citizen says.

From 1992 to 2002, that equals about 22,000 deaths in rollovers of riders who were buckled up.

Stronger roofs needed

In about 1,600 of those cases, the vehicles’ roofs crushed the victim. The other 400 were killed because the belts worked improperly, and they were ejected.

Public Citizen wants the government to require stronger roofs and seat belts that lock when a vehicle rolls. The group also says belts should be connected to the seat instead of the side of the vehicle so the belt would remain rigid in a crash.

Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 10 automakers, said the great majority of people who die in rollovers don’t wear belts. He said many vehicles already have advanced seat belts that tighten when the vehicle is in trouble.

Automakers now are focusing on technologies such as traction control “to stop the rollover from happening in the first place,” Shosteck said.

However, automakers have long resisted stronger roof standards, which would add weight and cost to vehicles.

Fixes are available

Tab Turner, an attorney who helped Public Citizen write its report, said seat belt performance varies widely in rollovers. Belts might not lock when the vehicle rolls, or might slacken when the roof caves in because they’re connected to the side of the vehicle.

He said Volvo is the only automaker that tests its seat belts in simulated rollovers.

Turner said it would cost around $100 per vehicle to make the changes Public Citizen wants.

“It’s not simple, but the fixes are both technologically and economically there, and they have been there for 10 years,” he said.

The Senate’s version of the transportation bill would require NHTSA to develop new standards for vehicle performance in rollovers by 2008. Automakers could meet those standards by strengthening roofs, improving seat belts and adding side air bags. The House version lacks that requirement, so lawmakers from both chambers must draft a compromise.

NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge opposes such mandates and says the time frame is unrealistic. But he has promised to issue this year a new standard for roof strength.

Three parents of teenagers who were injured or killed in rollovers said Monday that Congress can’t act soon enough.