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Backing carmakers, not consumers

Patrick Parker of Texas tragically discovered that his vehicle's roof was too weak to withstand a rollover accident. Parker swerved to miss a deer, rolled his Ford pickup truck and was left paralyzed when the roof gave way. Nearly 600 people die and 800 are injured each year by roof crush.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has chosen to respond to the growing risk in a peculiar way. While the agency did propose slightly tougher standards for roof strength, it is not holding the auto industry more responsible. Instead it is giving the industry a free pass.

If an automaker meets the federal government's minimum requirement for roof strength, the company would be made immune to liability suits, according to the agency's proposed rule.

It isn't the first time the Bush administration has sided with the corporate world against consumers, particularly on behalf of carmakers. Bush's agencies have backed the auto industry in two court challenges to stop California from implementing its own air-quality laws.

One law would require cars sold in the state to have reduced carbon dioxide emissions, in response to the global warming threat. Automobile manufacturers say the effect would be more stringent mileage requirements, which is a federal function and therefore illegal for a state to impose. The highway safety agency has taken the industry's side in that case.

In the other matter, a California law required those purchasing fleet vehicles such as garbage trucks and buses to choose vehicles with lower emissions. The auto and petroleum industries sued to overturn the law and the Justice Department aided their court victory.

As for the proposed roof-crush standard, it is such a minor tweak of existing regulation that 70 percent of existing vehicles already meet it. Yet it is inadequate to provide real protection, according to Joan Claybrook, an expert on car safety and president of Public Citizen. "It is technologically feasible and cost-effective to make vehicle roofs much, much stronger," she said. "The government has an obligation to require auto manufacturers to do so."

If an automaker meets the federal government's minimum requirement for roof strength, the company would be made immune to liability suits.

Without the threat of liability, however, the industry will be less motivated, and taxpayers will pick up the tab for the carnage. Parker settled with Ford and was able to gain some financial security, the Los Angeles Times reported. But if the auto industry is allowed to avoid the cost of injuries caused by its vehicles, then taxpayers will pick up the bills through Medicaid and other medical and social programs.

Parker gained insight into the relationship between carmakers and their regulators. It's as though the industry has "this red phone and they just pick it up and it automatically dials (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)," he said.

And the answer on the other end of the line is always yes.