The percentage of passengers who wear seat belts is at a record high of 81 percent in the United States. Although many lives are saved every year by the use of seat belts, the motoring public has not been informed of the current problems that exist with today's safety and restraint systems. The ability to hold an occupant securely in place is the reason that seat belts save lives. A seat belt that does not function properly can be the cause of serious injury or death.
Both the manufacturer of seat belt system components and the major U.S. automakers installing them have known for three decades that buckle systems were designed to be simple, cheap, and (as a result) are particularly vulnerable to malfunction.
There are some basic principles that define why seat belts can greatly reduce the potential for fatal and/or severe injuries. The physicist Sir Isaac Newton's first law states that an object in motion will tend to stay in motion. This is true of the human body as well as objects.
Once a body and an automobile are both in motion together a collision causing a sudden deceleration will not immediately affect the continued motion of the human occupant inside the vehicle. The body will continue in the same direction at the same speed as it had been immediately prior to the accident. This means that, unless restrained, the human occupant will continue in a forward motion into the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield, etc.
The physics of mechanical forces reveals that there are two collisions in a typical auto accident. The "first collision" is the vehicle's impact with another vehicle or fixed object. The "second collision" is the vehicle occupant's impact with the interior of the vehicle, or in cases of ejection, the impact outside the vehicle.
The purpose of a seat belt is to either prevent the second collision or minimize its injury-producing potential by reducing or eliminating occupant impact with the interior of the vehicle and or ejection from the vehicle.
In the 1960's, the federal government established the first standards for safety belts in motor vehicles. Under Section 402 of 23 U.S.C.A, a portion of federal highway funds may be withheld from states if they do not have an approved highway safety program to reduce the number and severity of traffic accidents.
One of the measures a state must include in its highway safety program is a provision that encourages drivers and passengers to use seat belts. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act formally established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
These standards provided minimum legally acceptable requirements for the manufacturing of vehicular components, including seat belts and seat belt buckles. This legislation also made the installation of seat belts mandatory by U.S. auto manufacturers.
Advanced seat belt technologies have been largely ignored. The most important advancements in the seat belt restrain systems have been made over the past few decades.
However, the FMVSS and industry standards governing the manufacture of seat belts and buckles have essentially remained the same over the past 20 years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has actively resisted proposed changes that would make seat belt buckles safer. There is a major lack of government regulation for seat belt restraint systems.
According to the consumer protection group "Public Citizen," there has never been a federal requirement that automakers test their seat belts to find out how they perform in rollovers. Today, rollover fatalities involving vehicles account for over 10,666 deaths - a third of all occupant deaths. In nearly 20 percent of all rollover accidents seat belts fail to perform as expected.
There are a number of seat belt design and manufacturing defects that can cause serious seat belt injuries. During a wreck, many types of seat belt buckles can inertially unlatch and come open. Both of the 2 major types of buckles used by vehicle manufacturers (the side release buckle and the end release buckle) can release during an auto accident.
On the side release button buckles, the inertial release happens as a result of inertia force or energy being applied to the back of the buckle in the form of forward movement of the occupant into the buckle. When the inertial energy is transferred into the spring of the buckle, it releases the tension on the latch plate, allowing it to come open. These forces can cause the buckle "pawl" or button to depress and release the latch plate leaving people susceptible to further injury in accidents. It would be as if the occupant wasn't belted in at all.
The end release buckles are more susceptible to failure in rollover accidents. The stalk of the end release buckle is elevated so that the buckle is no longer even with the trim of the seat. Therefore, these buckles have problems with a button that is too tall, allowing for unintentional depressions and accidental releases.
False latching is a major flaw that arises from the very design of the buckle itself. In this type of situation the latch plate can look, feel and even sound like it is latched when inserted into the buckle. However, in reality, the latch plate is not fully engaged. In an accident a falsely latched buckle will completely release the latch plate. When this happens the occupant is essentially unbelted and unrestrained. The person's body will move about the interior of the car or be ejected out of the car as though they had never put their seat belt on at all.
In some cases, after an accident occurs, the seat belt is partially torn or ripped completely in half. The webbing of a seat belt is designed to withstand the forces of an accident. Torn or ripped webbing can occur due to a defect or manufacturing flaw in the material or weaving of the belt itself.
Torn or ripped webbing may also be the consequence of some other vehicle defect. An improper installation of a seat belt that allows excessive slack or payout of the webbing can cause the belt to be loaded too rapidly. This can sever the webbing during an accident.
Retractors can fail to lock because of design or manufacturing defects. When an accident occurs, the seat belt retractor is designed to immediately lock and prevent any payout of the shoulder belt in order to hold the occupant in place. When a retractor fails to lock properly, excess webbing is released from the retractor and results in seat belt slack. Only a few inches of slack can be the cause of catastrophic or fatal injuries.
The public has not been adequately informed about the common occurrence of seat belt failures. The auto industry, as well as the NHTSA, is an enormous contributor to this lack of public knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of documents have been gathered that reveal how Ford and GM motor companies have misrepresented the actual number of seat belt failures to the U.S. Government.
In the 1992 NHTSA rulemaking petition, Ford stated that it knew of only 56 claims or incidents involving seat belt malfunctions. Records obtained by Bisnar | Chase revealed that 4,506 claims, incidents, accidents and lawsuits were reported to the NHTSA.
GM Motor Company also provided false information in the 1992 NHTSA rulemaking petition. GM enclosed test research which claimed that there laboratory testing had proven that inertial unlatching was a practical impossibility. After years of litigation, a court order was issued that required GM's testing laboratory to present it's testing documents. The court's order revealed that the laboratory likely falsified and suppressed its initial research which did, in fact, reveal that the forces necessary to produce unlatching was possible in auto accidents. The NHTSA has done virtually nothing in response to the information provided about defective seat belts. Their lax attitude has lead to thousands of deaths and serious injuries.
I am absolutely blown away by the fact that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard's are so low (regarding seat belt systems) in the United States. There is so much evidence that supports an insufficiency in most of the seat belts used in this country. Why has close to nothing been done to improve this phenomenon? Why is the information regarding seat belt defects still being suppressed? The multitude of vehicles on American roads remain equipped with unsafe and defectively designed restraint systems.
This information needs to be made public and the standards for safety must rise. The auto industry needs to take responsibility for the lives that they could have saved and do what they can to save lives in the future. There are better safety restraint systems on the market and they must be put into mass production in America's automobiles.
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.