New NHTSA Regulation May Shaft Auto Accident Victims

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For many years, there was a push for regulations to require airbags in new automobiles.

Although airbags are a safety feature that without a doubt saves lives during car accidents, there was not swift and immediate action on the part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make them required standard equipment.

An article in the Winston-Salem Journal suggests that the NHTSA's pending "roof crush" rule that has also been a long time in the making will not go as far in preventing car accident injuries as the air bag regulations.

There is even speculation that the roof-crush rule could slow down automobile safety improvements in the long run.

The roof crush rule that the NHTSA could soon implement could effectively remove all incentive for auto manufacturers to continue upgrading safety standards.

The reason is all too obvious, but the NHTSA seems oblivious to it. The new roof crush rule will pre-empt future personal injury lawsuits revolving around the roof strength of automobiles.

With the threat of any personal injury lawsuits brought by victims alleging faulty design and construction effectively removed by the roof crush rule, car manufacturers will have no reason to continue striving to make safer cars.

The Supreme Court once found that a NHTSA regulation pre-empted state tort law. Given that ruling, the NHTSA has seemingly taken the idea that all of its new regulations pre-empt accident victims' rights and run with it.

This type of immunity to personal injury lawsuits for defective products has been seen more than once during the Bush administration.

Another prime example of a situation in which a federal agency shields an industry from liability is seen with FDA pre-market approval of medical devices. In Riegel v. Medtronic earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law pre-empted state personal injury lawsuits based on negligent design or manufacturing of medical devices that had received pre-market approval by the FDA.

Consumers are getting another raw deal with the NHTSA's roof crush rule. In the United States, about 10,000 drivers and passengers are killed each year in rollover accidents. Of those deaths, 500 are attributed to roof crushes.

The NHTSA's new roof crush standard is already met or exceeded by 68 percent of new automobiles, so the new standard will likely only save about 50 lives per year.

There is substantial evidence that SUVs and other automobiles with a high center of gravity are usually more prone to rollovers, but the NHTSA's roof crush rule does not specifically address this issue. Saving 50 lives is wonderful, but a stronger safety standard would have saved even more.

The ugly flip side of the marginal safety improvements that the roof crush rule may provide is pre-emption. While some automobiles will be marginally safer under the rule, people who are injured or die in car accidents involving rollovers and roofs crushing will be unable to sue car manufacturers.

The NHTSA does not project that the roof crush rule will eliminate deaths or injuries due to roofs crushing.

Yet it still seems comfortable with taking away the rights of the many people who will continue to be injured or killed in roof crush accidents - while at the same time ensuring that auto manufacturers will not make any safety and design improvements beyond what is required.

The NHTSA is expected to issue the final version of its roof crush regulation in October.


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