General Motors Corp. plans to make rollover-enabled air bags standard on all retail vehicles by 2012. The world's largest automaker now installs the rollover air bag systems in 43 percent of the light trucks and SUVs the company manufactures. A leading safety advocate said the announcement shows automakers are moving ahead of safety regulators.

Ford, meanwhile, said it would build stronger roofs on many of its vehicles, exceeding federal safety standards.

GM said it plans to perform 150 rollover tests in 2007 at a new company testing facility in a effort to understand the dynamics of rollover crashes. Despite the seriousness of rollover accidents, there are not many rollover crash tests because events that occur in a rollover are difficult to repeat.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said it was a "positive sign that GM acknowledges the need for new vehicle designs to protect people in rollover crashes."

Rollover crashes kill 10,800 and injure more than 16,000 people annually.

In 2005, rollovers accounted for about 4 percent of all crashes but 33 percent of highway fatalities. Nearly 60 percent of SUV fatalities are the result of rollovers and the driver is twice as likely to die in an SUV rollover as in a car rollover.

GM will use the testing to look for ways to keep people from being ejected in rollovers and develop sensors for rollover-enabled air bags, which can help reduce injuries and prevent ejections. Rollover-enabled air bags stay open for five seconds compared with the basic head curtain air bag, which offers protection for about three-tenths of a second.

For more than 30 years, GM has conducted rollover tests using a dolly system. Vehicles are pulled sideways on a platform at a 23-degree angle. The new GM facility has the capacity to conduct additional types of rollover tests that simulate crashes experienced by drivers on the highway.

Claybrook said GM's announcement shows automakers are prepared to move ahead even without a strong push from government regulators.

"Today's announcement makes it clear that the industry is well prepared to do the kind of testing necessary under a government dynamic test standard," Claybrook said. "The Volvo XC-90 SUV manufactured since 2003 is an example of a vehicle that protects passengers in rollover crashes. It was designed using dynamic testing."

Ford Roof Strength

Not to be left out, Ford Motor Co. plans to improve the roof strength of many of its larger vehicles beyond the new standards that federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrtaion (NHTSA) have proposed.

Ford, which is facing more than $250 million in lawsuits involving SUV rollovers since 2004, told NHTSA that some versions of 11 models of its vehicles will have roofs 20 percent stronger than required.

NHTSA has proposed a new roof strength standard that would require a vehicle roof to survive a force equal to 2.5 times the vehicle's weight, an increase from the current 1.5 times. The new standard requires the roof to maintain sufficient head room for a buckled-in average size adult male to avoid being struck by a crushed roof. A final rule won't be in place until late next year at the earliest; automakers will have until at least 2011 to build the stronger roofs.

The Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator would exceed the new standards as would some of Ford's F-250 series trucks and E-Series vans, according to Ford.

Ford also has installed rollover safety canopies in 1 million vehicles now and predicts that figure will jump to 1.5 million by 2007.

Ford has a string of losses in rollover lawsuits and court decisions. While the company is appealing all of the verdicts, Ford has also fought to keep its internal roof strength documents secret.

GM neglected to say whether the information gleaned from this facility will be released to inform the public of vehicle performance. GM does mention the importance of seat belts but does not say whether it will offer rollover pretensioned seat belts (those that have been locked in place) in all its vehicles. Although there is no existing safety standard for seat belts in rollover crashes, the strength of the roof and the performance of the belts are the most critical safety protections in these crashes. Until these deficiencies are also addressed, drivers and passengers will continue to be put at risk of death or serious injury on our highways. * Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981. ###