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 # 330  

 March 2001




Agency Under Fire: Did NHSTA Speed Up Rollover Ratings to Aid Clinton's Personal Injury Lawyer Friends?

by Kevin Martin

 

Have I got a deal for you. Want to buy a new car designed by federal bureaucrats?

What, no takers? No wonder!

Designing anything - be it welfare systems or the postal service - isn't the forte of the vast army of paper shufflers who show up each day at government offices in the nation's capital and its affluent environs.

After all, the welfare system they came up with doomed millions of people who could have been hard-working, productive citizens to the indignity of low self-esteem and subsistence living.

The postal system would be out of business if it actually had to compete with private sector rivals such as UPS or yahoo.com.

Imagine then what a federal agency might manage to do with a sophisticated piece of technology such as a motor vehicle with its more than 15,000 parts and equivalent number of fuel mileage mandates, safety requirements and pollution controls.

It would be akin to reviving the East German auto industry - or perhaps worse.

Which brings us to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) latest embarrassment - its new ratings on the rollover risk of assorted vehicles.

NHTSA engineers decided they needed to disseminate ratings on rollover risk because allegedly defective Bridgestone/Firestone tires manufactured mainly at a facility in Decatur, Illinois were suffering tread separation when driven at high speeds in hot weather. The separations caused sports-utility vehicles with higher centers of gravity to occasionally roll over.

Now most engineers and scientists, when confronted with such a problem, would quickly conclude that maybe, just maybe, a trip to an automotive test track in Florida, Arizona or some other hot-weather state might be useful.

You could equip one fleet of models of sport utility vehicles with the SUV-specific tires produced by such tire makers as Goodyear, Yokohama, Dunlop, Michelin and Pirelli, to name a few. You could equip another fleet with the suspect SUV tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone. Then you could race the SUVs around the track at high speeds and chronicle which ones tipped over and which didn't.

NHTSA's approach to science is bit more creative. Aha, said its engineers, it is obvious that the fault lies with SUVs. If they didn't have a higher center of gravity, they almost certainly wouldn't roll over when equipped with defective tires whose treads tend to separate at high speeds.

So NHTSA - wittingly or unwittingly - came up with a course of action that may well have been the Clinton Administration's parting gift to its prime constituency - America's personal injury lawyers.

Instead of conducting field studies, it rushed out a last-minute risk of rollover rating system that its engineers constructed without ever leaving their desks. The ratings, which compare only 43 of several hundred SUV 2001 models, are based on a simple calculation involving a vehicle's track width and its center of gravity.

Whatever the reasoning behind NHTSA's logic, the end result was to paint sport utility vehicles like Ford's best-selling Explorer or GM's popular Blazer as a problem vehicle.

This appealed to the personal injury lawyers because Bridgestone/Firestone is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They could have sued the Japanese-owned company, but they likely would have had to stand in line behind other creditors to collect. Ford and GM, on the other hands, have deep, deep pockets.

One can only wonder if current NHTSA officials were influenced in their rush to rollover judgment by the small coterie of ex-NTHSA officials who now lend their services to personal injury lawyers.

Unfortunately, NHTSA's method of calculating rollover risk works only in the surrealistic world of plaintiffs' lawyers.

In the real world, automotive experts note, there some two dozen factors that contribute to rollover risk - chief among them drivers who refuse to exercise even a semblance of individual responsibility.

Driving at excessive speeds and losing control of a vehicle account for more than 90% of the rollovers in the single-vehicle crashes - the kind evaluated by NTSA.

One other startling statistic: More than 80% of the rollover fatalities each year involve drivers or passengers who didn't buckle their seat belts.

Despite the fact that many Americans have a fear and loathing for SUVs, motorists who drive them responsibly - seat-belted and knowledgeable about their design limitations - are far safer than those driving smaller, lighter cars. And this is especially so in the most prevalent type of crashes - frontal and side impact collisions.

In the wake of hearings on the Bridgestone/Firestone fiasco, Congress directed NHTSA to consider conducting future ratings on a test-track rather than using the simplistic slide-rule calculation it now employs.

Here's an even better suggestion. Let NHTSA bureaucrats catalog highway statistics and enforce the rules, but farm developing rules and ratings out to some of the genuine traffic safety experts housed in many of our major universities. Preferably ones who don't take money from personal injury lawyers.

Consider it one small step on the long road to restoring the people's trust in their own government.

# # #

Kevin Martin is a member of Project 21's National Advisory Board and an environmental contractor in the Washington-Baltimore area. Project 21 is an African-American leadership network working under the auspices of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].



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