“Click It or Ticket” – Seat Belt Safety and the Tort System

The social and political values reflected in the “Click It or Ticket” seat belt safety campaign provide a powerful backdrop for the plaintiff’s case.

I. Background

Maine has recently joined other states and the federal government in promoting the “Click It or Ticket” public safety campaign. This program, funded by the federal government through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, is reminiscent of the “seat belts save lives” campaign which appeared decades ago. There are several aspects of the “Click It or Ticket” campaign that are worthy of note for lawyers who represent people injured in car accidents.

First, the campaign reflects an important change in public policy. Years ago, when the “seat belts save lives” campaign was current, seat belt use was voluntary. Today, seat belt use is mandatory. As the “Click It or Ticket” advertising reminds us, the government will actually punish us for failing to use our seat belts.

Second, when the government is promoting a public safety program, it is probably based on established scientific ideas. In the case of seat belts, years of research and study establish that, when properly designed and made, seat belts save lives, and also preserve the quality of life by protecting passengers against debilitating brain and internal injuries.

Third, the “Click It or Ticket” campaign elevates the level of public discourse about seat belt safety, and establishes an atmosphere of credibility in which seat belt claims can be presented. While some argue that police resources should not be spent to monitor seat belt usage, they do not challenge the idea that seat belt use is safe, desirable behavior. If the general public believes that wearing seat belts is the right thing to do, jury panels are likely to believe that seat belts should prevent serious injuries, and should not be an independent cause of injury.

II. Seat Belt Safety Campaigns and Case Preparation

Lawyers who handle automobile accident cases must be aware of seat belt safety issues, and should investigate whether poorly designed or defective seat belt systems contributed to their clients’ injuries. In such cases, the social and political values reflected in the “Click It or Ticket” seat belt safety campaign provide a powerful backdrop for the plaintiff’s case.

The Purpose of Seat Belts

As long as a motor vehicle and its occupants are moving at the same speed in the same direction, there is no need for a seat belt. However, when a car abruptly stops or changes direction, a well-designed seat belt is critical to a passenger’s safety. In a front-end collision, for example, the car stops but momentum propels the unrestrained occupant forward.

The seat belt is designed to safely slow down and stop the occupant before he hits the dashboard or flies through the windshield. In a rear-end collision, the occupant is first driven back into the seat. As he rebounds, the seat belt prevents him from hitting the dashboard or steering wheel.

III. Seat Belt Design.

Modern seatbelt design began with Volvo. In the late 1950’s, it began selling a belt intended to be used diagonally across the upper body. This design was known as the “bandolier seat belt.” Within a few years, doctors and Volvo engineers began to recognize injury patterns, which have since been highly studied. They quickly concluded that, without a lap belt to restrain the pelvis, the bandolier was not safe. Travelers involved in front-end impacts could slip out from under the belt, twist sideways out of it, or go straight over the top of it. Users of the bandolier belt were not protected from hitting the dashboard, being completely ejected, or sustaining neck, throat and internal injuries from the belt itself. By 1965, Volvo discontinued use of the bandolier design.

In the mid-1960’s, other manufacturers began using a “lap belt only” design. This design proved no more effective than the bandolier belt. Both designs failed to fully or reliably restrain the occupant, and caused severe and permanent belt-inflicted injuries including spinal cord damage, liver lacerations, and bowel and kidney tears.

Seat Belt Designs have been developed for jet pilots which use five or more connecting points (two shoulder straps, a lap belt and a connection between the legs). These designs have been adapted for use in race cars, but have never been deemed practical – or necessary – for those driving at highway speeds or less.

Decades of experience and testing have demonstrated that passenger vehicle occupants can be effectively restrained and protected by a properly adjusted lap/shoulder belt combination. The lap belt must go across the front (bony part) of the hips, restraining and securing the pelvis. The shoulder belt must go diagonally across the sternum (not the stomach or throat), restraining the upper body. By controlling the body at the pelvis and sternum, modern seat belt systems protect softer body parts from harm.

Seat belts are made of a resilient fabric which is intended to stretch up to several inches in a crash. The stretching helps to soften the blow to the body which results from sudden stops. Modern seat belt systems are equipped with inertial locking devices which allow for some freedom of movement under normal conditions while locking tight in crash conditions. The newest seat belt systems have “pre-tensioners” which are electronically triggered under crash conditions in order to shorten the belts (to pull the occupant into the protective cocoon of the seat) prior to impact.

These modern seat belt systems have been proven to protect drivers and passengers, and they employ the technology which the government is promoting with the “Click It or Ticket” campaign.

IV. Seat Belt Claims

Despite all that is known about seat belt design, the automobile industry has not always made responsible decisions.

For many years, auto manufacturers provided combination lap and shoulder belt systems for rear seat passengers in the outboard positions, but “lap belt only” belts for middle seat passengers. This decision has proved devastating for crash victims in the rear middle seat, who have suffered massive internal and spinal cord injuries as a result of the known and avoidable risks of the “lap belt only” designs. Successful product liability claims are possible in these cases because manufacturers have long had the technical capacity to provide reliable, safe, shoulder belts to protect middle seat passengers with lap/shoulder belt combinations.

In the mid-1980’s, Chrysler attempted to return to the bandolier seat belt in its Dodge Shadow model. It did this as part of its development of a “passive” seat belt system- one that would work with no requirement that the occupant take action to buckle up. The move toward “passive” or automatic systems was promoted to the auto industry as part of a federal government effort to increase the use of seat belts.

Certainly, the attempt at developing “passive” technology was well-intended. However, Chrysler’s decision to provide a “passive” bandolier belt was a terrible mistake. The bandolier seat belt had been proven (by Volvo, Volkswagen, and others) to be ineffective decades earlier. Many people who could have survived a crash if they had been provided with a proper belt system died and were severely injured while wearing passive bandolier belts. This was a problem for other manufacturers as well. Bandolier technology was sold in various forms into the 1990s.

Knowledgeable plaintiffs lawyers have won cases for those injured by “lap belt only” and “bandolier” belt systems. Despite terrible and unnecessary injuries and the manufacturers’ exposure to damage claims, many cars with these inadequate seat belt systems are still on the road. The vehicles have never been recalled, and they remain a menace to the public simply because it is cheaper for the manufacturers to defend lawsuits than to recall the dangerous vehicles.

V. Seat Belt Buckles

Another seat belt-related danger that lurks on our highways is poorly designed seat belt buckles. In the mid-1990’s, 8 million vehicles were recalled because their seat belt buckles, made by Takata (one of the large suppliers to the auto industry), had plastic parts which were prone to break. The breakage led to “false latch” situations (where the user mistaken believed that the buckle was latched), as well as “failure under the load” or “inertial unlocking” where the buckle would open as a result of predictable crash forces.

Other buckles, known as “Gen III” buckles, had protruding release buttons which could be “bumped” open in accident conditions by an elbow, hand, or a loose object in the car. Needless to say, all of these flawed buckles have been the subject of tort claims seeking compensation for those seriously hurt by their failure. Despite the successful suits, some of the buckles have never been recalled, and buckles with similar defects continue to appear in new cars.

VI. One Size Fits All

Another form of defect that has showed up in auto seat belt systems relates to “fit” or adjustability. Some designs have failed to provide small passengers, including women and children, with the degree of safety they offer to the “average male” passenger. Belts that ride too high chafe at the neck of small passengers.

That leaves them with the unacceptable choices of declining to wear the belt, risking a sliced throat, or wearing the shoulder belt under the arms. Given what we know about seat belt design today, there is no excuse for selling “safety equipment” that is more likely to injure whole classes of passengers than to protect them.

VII. Conclusion

The “Click It or Ticket” safety campaign reflects an advance in the public discourse on the use of seatbelts. It is now accepted that seat belt use is safe practice, and that automobile passengers can expect to be protected from crash forces by the restraints in modern vehicles.

In this context, lawyers can help their clients by investigating auto accident cases to determine how the seat belts performed. If they failed to protect an occupant, or caused injury, there may be a viable product liability case. Given the public’s expectation of seat belts, a case based on the premise that well designed seat belts work is likely to be taken seriously by a Maine jury.

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