Safety group sounds seat belt alarm on millions of cars

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Safety group sounds seat belt alarm on millions of cars

01/22/02

by Christopher Jensen
Plain Dealer Auto Editor

Millions of Americans are driving cars with seat belts that may not protect them, because their original owners never had them fixed after one of the auto industry's largest recalls.

"It is a major problem," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., group founded by Ralph Nader.

The vehicles were part of a 1995 recall of about 8.7 million 1986-91 models made by 11 manufacturers including Honda, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan and Subaru.

Buckles on front seat belts made by Takata Corp. had plastic parts that could become old and brittle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned that the buckles might not latch, might not release or, in the worst case, might appear to be latched but pop open in a crash.

"The safety belts would not provide adequate protection to an occupant in a vehicle crash," the agency concluded after its investigation.

It was unlikely that all the vehicles would have defective belts, but NHTSA was worried enough that it wanted all of them changed.

"A seat belt is a last line of defense in a crash, and it should never fail," Ditlow said.

Automakers were required to replace the buckles for free. But 18 months after the recall began, fewer than 30 percent had been repaired, according to NHTSA figures.

Honda owners did the best: 29 percent of them took their vehicles in for repairs. Subaru owners were the worst, with only 10 percent of the vehicles repaired.

The agency does not require automakers to report the percentage of vehicles fixed after the first 18 months, but generally the repair rate drops off over time. People who bought the vehicles used probably would not know about the recall, Ditlow said.

If only 30 percent of owners had their vehicles fixed, that means the belts were not changed on about 6 million vehicles, Ditlow said. Although some of those might have been junked, millions could still be on the road.

Only about 26 percent of the 658,000 Mitsubishis were repaired, company spokeswoman Janis Little said.

About 30 percent of the 265,000 Fords were fixed despite three "reminder" mailings sent after the original recall notice, spokesman Mike Vaughn said.

Roughly 30 percent of the Honda owners and 35 percent of the Acura owners had their vehicles fixed, said Honda spokesman Andy Boyd, who said the automaker is still sending out notices to consumers. About 3.7 million Hondas or Acuras were repaired.

Normally, about 72 percent of owners whose vehicles have any kind of recalls get the repairs done, according to NHTSA.

Plain Dealer reporter Bill Sloat contributed to this article.

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.