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U.S. Urged to Tell Drivers of Possible Seat Belt Hazards

November 24, 1988|LAURIE DUNCAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A consumer action group, decrying needless injuries resulting from defective seat belts in tens of millions of automobiles on U.S. highways, called on the federal government Wednesday to inform drivers of the possible hazards associated with two types of seat belts and to require car companies to correct the alleged defects.

The data, including lawsuits against car manufacturers, "show that many thousands of people are dying or being permanently crippled each year by these (seat belt) designs," according to a statement from the Institute for Injury Reduction, a nonprofit research and education organization that studies injuries caused by product defects.

The two types of devices criticized by the institute are lap belts, which are present in the back seats of about 120 million cars in the United States, and the so-called "window shade" shoulder harness, which operates like a household window shade by allowing slack when a car passenger moves but locking tightly when the car decelerates suddenly.

Can 'Snap a Person in Two'

Lap belts cause "very serious" abdominal, spinal cord and head injuries, Benjamin Kelley, institute president, said at a press conference. These devices, which can "snap a person in two" by placing the belt's stress on a person's upper torso, are illegal in most European countries, where a combination shoulder-lap belt is required for all rear seats, he said.

The "window shade" belt contributes to severe head and spinal cord injuries in car accidents, Kelley said. His organization's tests showed "an absence of any effectiveness of that shoulder harness," which can be found in more than 100 million cars and trucks across the country.

If these two types of belts are changed, the number of serious accident victims would be reduced by 30%, he said. The institute based its research on court cases, as well as its own studies of seat belt safety and crash tests conducted by Automotive Safety Testing, a testing company in Ohio.

Deny Belts Are Unsafe

Representatives of General Motors and Ford, as well as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, denied that the belts are unsafe, calling the institute's charges "misleading and irresponsible" statements suggesting that people should not wear seat belts.

"They're not presenting the whole picture," said Barry Felrice, associate administrator of the highway safety agency. "Nine times out of 10, people are going to be much better off wearing a lap belt."

Felrice said the highway safety agency has no evidence that the "window shade" belts, which were introduced in 1976 by manufacturers to make seat belts more comfortable, have defects or present a safety problem.

Phasing Out Rear Lap Belts

Felrice did, however, acknowledge that lap-shoulder belts in rear seats are "a little bit safer" than the lap-only belts. Manufacturers are phasing out the lap belts in their new cars, Felrice said, and, by September, 1989, many domestic and imported cars will have lap-shoulder belts in the rear seats.

Although criticism of the lap and "window shade" belts has been leveled before, Larry Coben, an attorney and founder of the institute, said his organization is demanding safety standards for the seat belts now because of the high rate of belt-related injuries and the rising number of lawsuits related to them.

Kelley said that government regulators and car manufacturers "are shirking their responsibilities to warn about and correct these widespread serious death and serious injury-producing defects."

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