False Seat Belt Latching
Dangers of Defective Seat Belts
The first major flaw in the RCF-65, 67/Type I buckle arises from the very design of the buckle itself. The user may, upon some occasions, insert the tongue into the buckle until enough resistance is encountered to lead him or her to believe the buckle is fully engaged, when in fact it is not.
The RCF-65 and 67 have no spring or other eject feature built into the buckle to spit the tongue out if it was not fully engaged.
The belt occupant in such circumstance is therefore led to believe that the seat belt latch buckle is engaged when it actually is not. If an accident occurs when the buckle is so configured, the sudden load forces cause the seat belt latch tongue to come out of the buckle and leave the occupant suddenly and unexpectedly unrestrained.
This condition, known as "false latching," has been a known drawback of the RCF-65 and -67 since its inception. As early as August 31, 1966 (prior to passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966) the National Bureau of Standards modified certain regulations governing seat belt buckles so as to include "additional requirements for seat belt latch buckles [which] are included to reduce the probability of false latching."
As early as 1970, the European community adopted regulations which prohibited the use of buckles in Europe in which false seat belt latching was possible. By 1974, the RCF-67 was illegal in Europe because it as known to permit false latching. The U.S. automakers have long been aware that the RCF-67/Type I side-release buckle poses a significant danger of false latching inherent in the buckle. They have not only failed to address the problem, but have suppressed it. And the problem of false latching is not an insignificant one.
False Latching: Ford's Own Conclusion
During the period from 1967 through 1968, in Crash and Sled testing, Ford Engineer Peter Bertleson, Manager of Impact Dynamics at Ford, supervised approximately 500 crash tests involving test dummies, of which approximately 50 percent involved RCF-67/Type I side-release buckles. Of these tests, Ford knew at the time that approximately 15 percent of the dummies were left unrestrained at the conclusion of the test. Ford concluded that at least ½ of these resulted from Ford's own test technicians falsely latching the dummies into their buckles prior to initiation of the test.
Independent of false latching occurrences actually taking place during crash testing, Ford and G.M. had conducted a 1967 joint study which concluded that a new type of seat belt latch buckle incorporating a tongue eject feature was necessary to prevent false latching. As early as the early 1970's Ford developed General Product Acceptance Specifications which mandated that a seat belt buckle "be designed so as to prevent false latching." Nonetheless, Ford continued to use the RCF-67 which Ford knew was susceptible to false latching.
In 1973 and 1974, Hammill, a Division of Firestone, began manufacturing a "diecast" buckle. The "diecast" buckle looked remarkably similar to the RCF-67, but was made by Hamill pursuant to a Swiss patent which announced as its sole purpose, prevention of the danger of "false latching." After two years of production and installation of the buckle into Ford vehicles, Ford and Hammill abandoned the buckle to conserve manufacturing costs on a more "difficult" buckle to produce. Ford reverted the false-latching prone RCF-67.
Just a few years later, a false seat belt latch was actually captured on videotape, once again during barrier crash testing being performed by Ford. In 1978, Ford performed a Crash Test Ford numbered 3888, a barrier impact test the purpose of which was to determine fuel system integrity. The buckle used for the dummies in the test was an RCF-67/Type buckle. The videotape clearly showed that at the time of impact, the crash test dummy occupying the front left passenger seat suddenly came unrestrained as its seat belt came flying off. The dummy proceeded into and shattered the vehicle's windshield. A human being in its place would have been killed instantly.
Ford's employees and experts in previous lawsuits have since admitted that Ford's own specially-trained engineers themselves once again "falsely latched" the right front seat passenger into the right seat of the pickup truck used for Crash Test 3888. In fact, the principal Engineer on Crash Test 3888 himself admitted in a deposition that the dummy had been buckled into the vehicle in a prep garage one-half mile from the test building, hoisted onto a tow truck, towed over poorly paved ground with potholes and cracks, jacked down from the truck and placed onto the test track and then accelerated into the barrier, and at no time prior to the initial impact did the falsely-latched buckle ever unlatch.
In spite of these developments, Ford did not begin phasing out the RCF-67 until the mid 1990's, except for a few new car lines developed in the mid to late 1980's, which were designed to be equipped from the start with specially-designed side-release buckles possessing tongue eject features. These included the Ford Probe, Taurus and Mercury Sable. At the same time, Ford and GM were aware that an increasing number of inadvertent unlatching customer complaints and lawsuits were being filed arising from accidents involving RCF-67 buckles. Ford's response to these incidents was essentially to conceal them from the public altogether, while secretly replacing RCF-67 buckles with the new end-release buckles now being supplied to Ford by bucklemakers TRW VSSI and Allied Signal.
Inertial Unlatching - A Second problem
The second problem with the RCF-65, 67/Type I is its susceptibility to become unlatched (even when previously fully latched) when a side-load is suddenly applied to the back of the belt buckle (such as during a side-impact collision or sudden rollover of the vehicle). Under these circumstances, the body of the buckle suddenly moves opposite the direction of the button, but the inertial forces acting on the button cause it to remain relatively at station and in place. This effectively causes the release button to move toward the unlatch position, thus releasing the occupant suddenly and unexpectedly. Because the release occurs as a result of the inertial forces acting on the button, this type of inadvertent unlatching is called "inertial unlatching."
Inertial unlatching can easily be demonstrated using an RCF 67 buckle, tongue and belt by fully latching, and then pulling on each end while slapping the back of the buckle firmly against a solid surface. The tongue will instantaneously separate from the buckle. Unlike false unlatching, which the buckle and automakers conceded long ago is an inherent characteristic of the RCF-67/Type I buckle, they have steadfastly declared inertial unlatching to be impossible in real world conditions.
Lawsuits Focusing on Inertial Unlatching
Major attention to inertial unlatching arose in 1992 when a syndicated CBS program, "Street Stories" broadcast a segment focusing on several lawsuits which alleged that motorists and passengers (or their heirs) who had been wearing their RCF-67/Type I seat belt buckles became suddenly unlatching in accidents involving dynamic side-impact forces and were ejected from their vehicles and killer and/or serious injured. Shortly after the program aired, a petition was filed with NHTSA by a coalition of consumer groups to begin rule making proceedings to investigate "inertial unlatching" to enact regulations preventing buckles susceptible to false latching from being released to the public.
The reaction by the automakers and buckle vendors was vehement denial that inertial unlatching could occur and vigorous opposition to the petition. When asked to supply statistics concerning accident claims and lawsuits arising from possible inertial unlatch incidents, the auto industry reported that few if any claims or suits had been filed implicating inertial unlatching, and that the problem was essentially nonexistent.
G.M. claimed that it had commissioned independent research from an accident analysis laboratory in Arizona which proved that the inertial forces required to achieve an inertial unlatch in an accident were so severe as to be impossible in all but the most severe accidents (where the impact forces were so severe that even a properly-belted occupant could not be expected to survive).
In November, 1992, even before the industry's written responses were received and fully considered, NHTSA denied the petition on the basis that no evidence suggested inertial unlatching was actually a problem in real world conditions. Nonetheless, since 1992, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the major automakers citing inertial unlatching as the cause of deaths and serious injuries to occupants of RCF-67 and Type I-equipped vehicles.
Contact an auto product liability lawyer at Bisnar Chase if you've had an issue with a malfunctioning seat belt latch that resulted in injury. Reach us today to discuss your case.