The national average for seat belt use is at a high of 71% and that’s very good news. The increased use of the safety restraints come after a $3.7 million campaign called “Click It or Ticket.” This program used paid advertising from public and private funds that warned communities that law enforcement would be out in force looking for violators of seat belt laws. These statistics are promising when reviewing the facts that in 1999 more than 32,000 drivers and passengers were killed in automobile crashes with an estimated 9,553 lives that could have been saved had seat belts been used. But these statistics do not show the bigger picture, the number of people injured or killed because of defective seat belts. Last year alone a number of car companies recalled their automobiles due to defective seat belts.

The “lock for latch” seat belt design is recognized as a safer design feature that will stay fastened while buckles lacking the feature may not. Mounting evidence has indicated that some seat belts appear to be more prone to failure during crashes than other belts. There are several different explanations that have been offered regarding seat belt failures. Inertial unlatching can occur when the seat belt becomes unlatched during a collision by inertial forces. The latch plate pulls out of the buckle leaving people unbelted and susceptible to further injury in accidents.

Defective seat belts may not properly restrain occupants of a vehicle due to poor manufacturing or design. There have been warnings in the past against using buckles with no “lock-for-the-latch” design on seatbelts because they are more susceptible to inertial unlatching. False latching is a defective seat belt buckle problem that can occur when the buckle appears to be latched but actually is not. Because false latching occurs, vehicle occupants can be thrown from the car despite wearing the seat belt. Safety standards regarding false latching require buckles that are falsely latched to pull free at less than five pounds of pull – as a result, a false-latched buckle would not withstand a simple pull on the belt to ensure it is properly latched.

Ford and General Motors 2000 model-year vehicles had more than 300,000 vehicles recalled because of safety concerns with the seat belt buckle latches. The seat belts may not properly restrain vehicle occupants during a crash. Ford vehicle’s that are affected by defective seat belts are selected Explorer SUVs, Ranger pickups, F-150 pickups, Lincoln Town Cars, Escorts, Mountaineers, Mercury Villager vans, Ford Contour, and Mercury Mystique sedans and Windstar vans.

Affected General Motors models of cars that are affected by defective seat belts include selected Buick Century, Chevrolet Lumina and Impala sedans, Monte Carlo couples, Chevy Blazer SUVs, Chevy Venture minivans, GMC Jimmy SUVs, Oldsmobile Intrigue sedans, Olds Silhouette minivans, Olds Bravada SUVs, Pontiac Grand Prix sedans, Pontian Montana minivans and Saturn L-Series vehicles. The defective Ford and General Motors seat belts were manufactured by TRW, Inc, and said that latch assemblies were improperly heat-treated, which made them weaker than specified federal rules. TRW and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they did not know of injuries as the result of the defective seat belts.

Some seat belt buckles are safer than others. Manufacturers are not willing to make information public regarding seat belt buckles that are more prone to fail during crashes. Consumers are unable to make the distinction between safer safety belt models and what type of seat belt is in their vehicles until the information becomes available to the public. The “lock for the latch” seat belt buckle design helps to prevent buckles from opening during a crash and have been confirmed by tests performed by experts in the field of their safeness.

Because seat belts can fail and release during a crash it is often difficult to determine how many people are killed or injured every year due to defective seat belts. Inertial unlatching is a term that has been publicly dismissed by automakers and the U.S. government but is an obvious danger to many people. Patent literature, dating back to as early as 1952, shows the repeated warnings of the dangers of inertial unlatching. A patent from 1967 warned that seat belt buckles should be “positive locking” and not just “spring held”. In 1982 a patent was obtained which stated a properly designed latch should be physically blocked in the latched position to prevent unlatching by inertia forces acting on the vehicle body. However, anti-inertial unlatching features are still not used in all seat belt buckles in new cars.

So, while the increased seat belt use is good news, it’s not good news that many of the seat belts in use are defective and don’t work properly. The automobile industry has a duty to provide safe and workable restraint systems in the vehicles being sold. Hopefully, things will get better and soon.

Jere L. Beasley, Beasley Allen Founder
Jere Beasley

Jere Beasley, the founding member of Beasley Allen Law Firm, has practiced law as an advocate for victims of wrongdoing since 1962. He was the lead Beasley Allen attorney in the record $11.9 billion award against ExxonMobil Corp. on behalf of the state of Alabama.

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