The word from Washington hit the streets here with all the enthusiasm traditionally reserved for a flat tire in rush-hour traffic.
After years of impassioned warnings to "Buckle up!"--and now a state law that requires it--the National Transportation Safety Board last week issued a report saying that rear seat belts of the lap variety might be hazardous to your health.
The Washington-based agency said that in some accidents lap belts (as opposed to shoulder/lap belts) could even be responsible for serious or fatal injuries.
Killer lap belts?
Might you or your passengers be better off not wearing them?
Hard to Predict
The Safety Board said it didn't know for sure whether car passengers would be safer securing themselves in lap belts or ignoring them. After all, the board acknowledged it had investigated only front-end crashes and it's hard to predict what sort of crash you could be involved in.
(In its study of 26 front-end car crashes, the board's investigators found that numerous passengers in the back seats wearing lap belts were subject to injuries to the abdomen, spine or head from the "violent jackknifing of the body upon impact."
(The report said "in many cases, the lap belts induced severe to fatal injuries that probably would not have occurred if the lap belts had not been worn." It also noted that of the 50 people who wore only a lap belt, 32 would have "fared substantially better" if they had worn shoulder/lap belts. Thus the board urged that the government require shoulder/lap belts in rear seats of all new cars, not just front seats where they're already required.)
But then, on the same day last week, another federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, begged to differ. This group argued that its data, covering thousands of cases, showed that a rear-seat passenger "has a better chance of avoiding serious injury or death by wearing a lap belt as opposed to wearing no belt at all."
Who do you believe?
More importantly, what do you do, particularly if you're a parent whose children are frequently buckled into rear-seat lap belts?
It turns out that local safety-conscious parents interviewed by The Times feel reasonably assured with their own solutions.
Take Jeremy Kramer, father of three ("two in car seats, one in a seat belt").
One Seat Belt Short
Kramer, who lives in the Beverly-Fairfax area and works in the advertising specialty (giveaway) business, considers himself extremely safety-oriented. So much so that when he serves as den father to his son's group of seven Cub Scouts, he will not drive them all in his Toyota van. The van is one seat belt short. Instead, Kramer arranges for the boys to ride in two cars, where there are enough seat belts for everyone.
And when his 9-year-old son went to camp, Kramer made sure to check that the camp bus was equipped with seat belts--and that the campers were required to wear them.
Though Kramer's van is equipped with shoulder/lap belts in the front seats and lap belts for the rear seats, Kramer said he plans to continue insisting that passengers wear their seat belts, whatever the type.
"As far as I'm concerned, my kids are going to continue to wear lap belts. When the government requires shoulder harnesses, then we'll go with that," Kramer declared. "We are a seat belt family. I'm from the generation when all seat belts were lap belts, optional equipment."
Benida Solow, a stained glass artist who lives in Brentwood, similarly feels satisfied with the safety system she already has in place for her two children.
The mother of a 4-year-old and a 9-month old, Solow agrees that shoulder/lap harnesses are safer than mere lap belts. But she notes that when her 4-year-old daughter has tried to use a shoulder/lap belt, the belts hits her in the face. Solow, who is small, has also experienced a similar problem with shoulder belts that act as if they're out to strangle her.
Solow's solution is to transport her 9-month-old infant in a baby carrier, held in place with a lap belt in the back seat of the car. On short trips, her 4-year-old rides in the front seat of the car, wearing the irritating shoulder/lap belt.
On longer trips, the 4-year-old rides in the back seat in her plastic-padded booster seat that is held in place by a lap belt.
Andrea Schwartz, a Brentwood mother and businesswoman, reported she was a little confused by the "controversy of one agency saying lap belts are OK and another agency saying they aren't. "
Nonetheless, she decided the lap belt is "adequate" to hold her 5-year-old daughter's booster seat in the back seat of the car.
But Schwartz, too, has found difficulties with having her child sit in the front seat wearing a shoulder/lap belt.
"In the front seat, she'll put on the shoulder strap but she puts it behind her because it will strangle her. I think that's what the pediatrician suggests," Schwartz said. "We don't use the back seat of the car for adults so I'm not going to put a shoulder strap in."