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Status Report, Vol. 44, No. 8 | September 17, 2009 Subscribe

NHTSA opens bumper dialogue on light trucks

U.S. regulators time and again have ignored calls to improve the bumpers on all vehicles on the road, so the Institute was surprised when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in June agreed to seek comments on an Institute petition to extend federal bumper rules to light trucks (pickups, SUVs, and vans). It's the first time the agency hasn't outright rejected a petition to regulate these vehicles' bumpers.

"We think the case for extending bumper rules is a compelling one," says Institute senior vice president Joe Nolan. This is why the Institute petitioned NHTSA in July 2008 to regulate bumpers on light trucks just as it does cars (see "Bumper rules should extend to light trucks, Institute tells NHTSA," July 1, 2008). Now the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America are joining the call for regulation. Consumers Union also says it supports a bumper rule for SUVs and vans but not for pickups.

NHTSA previously denied 3 other petitions by private citizens requesting rulemaking on light truck bumpers, in 1984 and 1991. It's still legal to sell these vehicles without any bumpers at all. The agency's long-standing thinking is that requiring light trucks to meet the same bumper rules as cars would compromise off-road utility and interfere on loading ramps.

It's a view the automakers still push. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers urge NHTSA to deny the Institute's request, contending that regulating light truck bumpers would reduce the functionality and versatility of these vehicles without providing safety benefits.

Nolan counters that "there's nothing new in this old, recycled argument."

NHTSA concedes that things have changed. "Our evaluation leads us to think that it may be an appropriate time to reconsider past agency decisions on extending the bumper standard to other vehicles," the agency states in its request for comments.

SUVs, pickups, and vans for the most part are used differently now than 30 years ago when cars dominated the fleet. They're popular family vehicles that are just as likely to ferry sports gear and groceries as to haul pallets or building materials. Their use has led to a compatibility problem in low- and high-speed crashes that NHTSA, automakers, and the Institute have been working to resolve (see "Huge cost of bumper mismatch," Sept. 13, 2004). When these bigger vehicles collide with smaller ones in everyday traffic, cars end up with excessive damage to engine cooling systems, fenders, bumper covers, and safety equipment like lights.

Since the 1970s, rules for cars specify a zone for bumper heights and limit the amount of damage that's allowed beyond a bumper system in a low-speed crash. The idea is to ensure that the bumpers on colliding cars engage, absorb most of the impact energy, and protect vehicle body parts. Because the rules don't apply to pickups, SUVs, or vans, their higher-riding bumpers often don't match up with those on cars. Crash energy may bypass the bumpers to damage vehicle bodies. Or the bumpers may engage but then slide off each other instead of staying engaged.

Insurance claims centers see the consequences of this incompatibility every day. Results of Institute tests replicating real-world damage further bolster the case for regulation.

NHTSA in its request for comments sought data on whether the geometry, or bumper heights, of current SUVs, pickups, and vans still is as bad as the Institute pointed out in its petition. So the Institute measured the heights of front and rear bumpers on nearly all light trucks sold in the United States, finding their heights incompatible with the bumpers on cars.

Engineers also measured approach and departure angles for loading and offloading cargo and couldn't find a conflict with the height of the lower edge of light trucks' front bumpers and ramps. There's only a weak relationship between departure angle and rear bumper height. Components below the bumper (fog lamps, tow hooks, and the like), not the bumper bar itself, limit departure and approach angles.

"These geometrical data debunk the argument that light trucks can't have compatible bumpers because of off-road requirements," Nolan says.

The safety of pedestrians struck by pickups, SUVs, and vans is another issue. Bumpers on these vehicles often have rigid exposed bars, protruding tow hooks, and other off-road gear that may do more harm to pedestrians compared with car bumpers. Research indicates the risk of injury and death is greater for pedestrians hit by light trucks than by cars.

"Lowering bumper beams on pickups, SUVs, and vans could help reduce pedestrian leg injuries," Nolan says.

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