U.S. automakers have long ignored safety risks posed by rear-seat lap belts that lack shoulder restraints, according to a South Carolina plaintiff's lawyer.
J. Kendall Few of Greenville contends that 700 pages of medical journal articles, patent applications, crash test analyses, National Transportation Safety Board recommendations and other records he compiled show how the industry failed to curtail what he calls hazards for more than 40 years.
Few has brought suit on behalf of a client against Ford Motor Co., and has sent out a press release offering to help other lawyers bring similar suits against car companies over lack of shoulder belts in rear seats.
But Phil Haseltine, president of the American Coalition for Traffic Safety in Arlington, Va., argues that Few is off base. Haseltine says the industry has steadily improved rear seat belt designs for safety and comfort, and has made retrofit kits available to owners of vehicles without them.
'Like most automotive technology, we've seen a steady evolution in belt designs,' says Haseltine, whose manufacturer- and supplier-supported association conducts auto safety education initiatives.
Few says that without a shoulder restraint, internal injuries can occur when a body, anchored by the waist to a fixed object, is subjected to the G forces of a crash. They include 'catastrophic intra-abdominal injuries, fractures and dislocations of the lumbar spine and paralyzing spinal cord injuries' from the jackknifing of the rear passenger's upper torso over the lap belt.
As early as 1944, designers in the auto and aviation industries knew that shoulder harnesses would distribute forces more evenly than lap belts alone, according to Few.
Few says rear-seat shoulder harnesses were required in some foreign countries as early as 1971, but were not part of mandatory equipment for U.S. cars for outboard passengers until 1989.
He says his file 'can be offered as proof in any courtroom that carmakers have long known about these dangers, yet still put millions at needless risk.'
'Millions of rear seat passengers, and all people sitting in the center seat, daily risk crippling injury or death if there are no rear seat shoulder harnesses in their cars,' he says, estimating that 58 million such vehicles are in use in the United States.
However, Haseltine says, 'We don't design belt systems in a vacuum. Rather, it's an integrated restraint system that includes the safety belt; the seat itself in terms of angles and other dimensions; where the seat belt mounts through the seat back or bottom; and the airbag design.'
Manufacturers offer retrofit kits for most of their pre-1989 models, but only 'a relatively small proportion of the population has taken advantage of them, despite aggressive advertising campaigns,' he says. He notes that General Motors, for example, advertised its retrofit kits on the radio, and Ford Motor Co. sent advisory letters to owners of vehicles without rear shoulder restraints.
The issue will come up at a Jasper County (S.C.) Circuit Court trial scheduled this summer against Ford.
Few's client, 16-year-old Maria Saxon, allegedly became a paraplegic from lap belt injuries received while riding on the middle bench seat of a 1988 Ford Aerostar. The seat was not equipped with a shoulder harness.
The minivan was struck head-on when an oncoming vehicle crossed the center line of the wet road. Two front-seat passengers in the Aerostar were injured, and the driver of the other vehicle died in the crash, according to Jennifer Flake, a Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman.
The automaker disputes the lawsuit's allegation that the Aerostar was defective due to the lack of shoulder restraint for middle-seat passengers.
'Ford's decision to incorporate a two-point rear-seat lap belt was consistent with the custom and practice in the industry,' Flake says.
'Two-point lap belts, when properly worn, provide a reasonable and adequate level of protection for a variety of occupants in most accident situations.'
But Few says, 'The federal standard says a lap belt shall rest on the pelvis at all times, and it does not if there is no shoulder harness. It rides up into the abdominal area.'
His research initially focused on Ford and includes a summary of 167 Ford lap belt complaints that include 36 deaths, 34 instances of paraplegia and 39 spinal cord injuries from 1975-95. He says the research is being expanded to cover all domestic and foreign automakers that provided vehicles for the American market from 1966 through 1990.