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Car Makers, Government Seek Seat Belt Consensus

August 28, 1986|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I was very interested a couple of weeks ago in the story about how the National Transportation Safety Board is urging the requirement of shoulder-harness seat belts in the back seats of new cars, and about how the lap seat belts now in use in the rear may be doing more harm than good. I also know that there's some controversy over that.

Nevertheless, it seems logical to me that shoulder-harnesses should be better, and I am wondering if they are available now and can be added to an existing car.--R.L.

Answer: Controversy, indeed. Limited research (really limited--it encompassed only 26 crashes) suggests that rear-seat passengers might be better off in a head-on crash without a seat belt than with the flip-forward effect that a lap belt tends to have. The opposing argument takes the position that any kind of belt is better than none in the absence of more convincing research.

But, as you say, there's a strong consensus that shoulder-harness belts in the rear would be a lot more effective than the present lap belts (as was proved to be the case in the front seat). In fact, both Ford and General Motors have already scheduled rear shoulder-harness seat belts as standard equipment on their '89 models. Several foreign makers (among them Volvo and Saab) already have them in place, as does Ford in its foreign-built Merkur.

Having your present car equipped with rear shoulder harnesses ("retrofitting," or modifying later design improvements into an existing model) is one of those ideas that is more practical in theory than it is in reality.

"Actually," according to Harry Kelly of GM's Los Angeles public relations regional office in Century City, "we had a retrofit kit as early as 1980. But there simply wasn't any interest in it, so we discontinued it. Now, since the new interest in rear shoulder harnesses, we're getting ready to reintroduce a new version. There's no real problem with it, since the anchor points for the rear lap belts have passed all the safety tests and are perfectly adequate for shoulder harnesses as well. Our dealers will have them shortly, and not just for GM cars."

Ford, however--while conceding that, technically, the rear anchor points are sufficiently strong for shoulder harnesses too--is moving more slowly into the retrofit business.

"We still think," according to Bob Harner, who heads up Ford's West Coast public affairs office, "that there's more of a re-engineering problem involved than there seems to be. It's not in re-engineering the anchor points," Harner adds. "They're all right and have met federal safety standards since '72. It's in re-engineering the harness belts themselves. Obviously, you wouldn't be able to use one in a Lincoln that's been designed for a Ford. And then you've got the problem of designing them for similar-sized cars but which are several years older. It would probably never be practical, for instance, to design a retrofit for a Pinto. It wouldn't be effective for a model that old."

Obviously, Harner continues, Ford will come out with a retrofit shoulder harness for older cars but not as quickly as GM is planning.

It's still too soon to estimate costs, GM's Kelly adds. "The retrofit kit we recently discontinued sold for about $125 installed but that was several years ago. I'm sure it will be more than that when the new ones come out."

Public Demand

How much public demand--and how much the public will be willing to pay--for safety devices is always a nagging question within the automobile industry. Ford is one of several car manufacturers, for instance, that now offer the front-seat air bag as an option.

"I'd have to put the public's interest in the air bag as 'mild,' " Harner says. "It's expensive, for one thing--about $800--and even that doesn't begin to cover our costs."

Receiving far less publicity than the air bag and the rear-seat shoulder harness is Ford's anti-skid brakes, Harner says. "It's probably the biggest major safety advance to come along, but you don't hear too much about it here (in Southern California), because we don't have nearly the wet-weather driving that other parts of the country have."

Already standard equipment on Ford's '87 Thunderbirds and Cougars, the anti-skid brakes consist of electronic sensors on the wheels that sense when the wheels are about to lock and then alternately modulate the brakes on either side of the car to keep them stabilized.

It is generally conceded that the shoulder harness for rear-seat passengers, like the front-seat shoulder harness, will be modest enough in cost so that it will simply be absorbed into an automobile's sticker price. (Although, admittedly, that's not quite the same thing as saying that it will be without cost).

And so there you have it: The rear-seat shoulder harness is a safety idea whose time has definitely come. It is in the works--it's just not here yet.

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