WASHINGTON - Federal safety officials want automakers to look for ways to get more motorists to wear seat belts, but those officials are wary of inciting consumer wrath.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rejected a proposal from two experienced automotive engineers who suggested cutting off stereos, air conditioning and other accessories until belts are buckled.
For some at NHTSA, the idea was just too much like a disastrous 1973 rule that required 1974 model cars to have either automatic protection, such as airbags, or an ignition interlock to keep the vehicle from starting until belts were buckled.
Most had interlocks, and the public uproar was so loud even Congress got involved. That's why, for example, federal law still says seat belt warning buzzers may last no more than eight seconds.
'Great care must be taken in requiring vehicle modifications to induce higher belt use to avoid consumer backlash,' NHTSA wrote in rejecting the recent petition. Cutting off accessories 'would be indistinguishable in nature from a requirement for an interlock,' agency officials added.
Carl Nash, one of the petitioners and a former NHTSA official himself, called the agency reasoning 'hackneyed at best.'
Nash, now an adjunct professor of automotive safety at George Washington University, said laws in 49 states require that seat belts be worn. 'How could people object to reminders to obey the law?'
He and fellow petitioner Donald Friedman, who helped design safety research vehicles for NHTSA in the 1970s, will press ahead with their ideas, Nash said. They either will ask NHTSA to reconsider or will appeal to lawmakers or the courts.
Their petition contended that universal seat belt use would save at least 7,000 lives a year, far more than the advanced airbags the government is preparing to mandate.
NOT THE ONLY ANSWER
Nash said he and Friedman did not claim that an accessory cutoff system is the only answer. They merely wanted NHTSA to consider alternatives and to gather comments about them. They said in their petition that successful systems would eliminate the need to test airbags for the protection they provide unbelted adults. Automakers are concerned the tests could force them to install powerful airbags that pose a risk to children and small women.
While NHTSA officials said current law does not allow them to require seat belt warning signals of more than eight seconds, they are encouraged by such voluntary efforts as Ford Motor Co.'s new Belt-Minder.The device illuminates a dashboard light and chimes periodically until belts are buckled.
Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said the company expects Belt-Minder will annoy some motorists, but it is willing to accept complaints if the result is greater belt use. '