History of Seat Belts in the U.S.
The use of seat belts in automobiles did not begin in earnest until the mid to late 1950's. Even then, seat belts were considered optional equipment. In 1955, famous actor James Dean died in a spectacular two-vehicle crash in the Southern California desert, which he likely would have survived had he been wearing a seat belt. History was made. The seat belt industry bloomed.
Probably more so than any other incident, the Dean crash launched a new period of public awareness about seat belt utilization in automobiles and their possible advantages.
In 1955, Swedish automaker Volvo was the first manufacturer to offer seat belt systems as standard equipment in its automobiles on a safety first theme. Volvo backed up its claims with a substantial amount of crash testing it independently performed during the 1950's which provided inescapable proof that use of a seat belt during an automobile accident would reduce both fatalities and serious injuries.
Video: In 1959 Volvo Engineers discuss the safety enhancements by adding seat belts to vehicles.
Although history shows a heightened public awareness about seat belt safety, in the United States some American automakers wanted to offer seat belts as optional equipment in their vehicle lines, few customers ordered seat belts and they were never made standard equipment in American cars until the mid 1960's.
In 1963, recognizing a mounting number casualties on the public roads and highways avoidable through seat belt usage, Congress made history and ordered that minimum federal standards be adopted for safety belts "so that passenger injuries in motor vehicle accidents can be kept to a minimum." (77 Stats. 361) One year later, the U.S. Commerce Department proposed and adopted a variety of regulations governing seat belt adoption, usage and testing which were largely adopted from standards which had previously been issued by the Society of Automotive Engineers ("SAE") (29 F.R. 12736, 16973).
These new regulations, posted at 15 C.F.R.. § 7, et seq. set forth a host of minimum requirements for manufacturers to follow governing the strengths and tolerances of seat belts, buckles, retractors and other restraint system components. In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which formally established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards ("FMVSS") providing minimum legally acceptable requirements for the manufacturing of vehicular components, including seat belts and seat belt buckles. This legislation also made the installation of seat belts mandatory by U.S. automakers.
Creating the Shoulder Belt System
In the late 1960's, heightened public safety concerns over the potential for a lap belt alone to produce serious lower extremity and abdominal injuries during a car accident (although perhaps preventing fatal injuries) prompted more regulatory changes to require the use of lap and shoulder belt systems. These integrated restraints are theoretically designed to distribute the accident-retraining forces of the belt system along the body rather than focusing them solely along the pelvis, raising the potential for abdominal injuries caused by the lap belt alone.
In the late 1970's, in an effort to compel a higher degree of public use of seat belt systems, the Federal Government required automakers to install automatic restraint systems, which involved the use of shoulder harnesses on rails and slots which would automatically slide into place when the occupant started the vehicle. However, these mechanically complicated systems were prone to substantial problems, and involved a manually-attached lap belt which many users failed to employ under the mistaken belief that they were automatically and fully restrained.
When these occupants were involved in accidents in which their automatic shoulder harness alone was in place, they were subjected to more serious injuries than they likely would have suffered had they been wearing only a lap belt. As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") enacted regulations requiring placards to be placed on the automatic shoulder harness systems warning that they are not to be used without the lap belt. Due to these problems, the U.S. automakers manufacturers were permitted discontinue manufacture of these automatic shoulder restraint systems.
During the mid-1980's, while the automatic restraint systems were being troubleshot in production, crash research was leading to the conclusion that an inflatable air bag (often referred to as the SRS - supplemental, restraint system) could supplement vehicle occupant protection in an accident is used as a supplement to seat belts and shoulder harnesses.
Inclusion of these systems in new vehicles began to become mandatory in certain passenger vehicles the early 1990's and are being gradually phased in into other types of vehicles. Air bags, of course, also pose their own risks. Recent concern has arisen over the potential for air bags, during deployment, to cause serious life threatening injuries to certain occupants, such as small children and frail adults, during sudden air bags inflation. Nonetheless, air bags have greatly reduced the number of fatal and serious auto injuries in vehicular accidents, particularly in highway accidents involving greater speeds.
Seat Belt Buckle Evolution
The object of a seat belt buckle is to bring two ends of the seat belt together in a junction which will keep the two ends of the belt securely fastened to one another, particularly during the sudden and severe loads imposed during an accident - yet be easy for the occupant to fasten and unfasten in entering and existing the vehicle.
The first seat belt to be mass-produced for this purpose in American vehicles in the 1950's and early 1960's closely resembled the type of widely-recognized seat belt buckle still in use on Airliners today, called a "lift-cover" buckle. The restraint system would have a male tongue at one end with a hole or aperture in it, and would be inserted into the female buckle where a spring-loaded latch pin (called a pawl) would pass into the pawl and hold the tongue firmly into the buckle. The pin would be extracted when the user lifted up the hinged, spring-loaded buckle cover, releasing the pawl from the aperture in the tongue, allowing the tongue and buckle once again to separate.
Early after installation of these buckles, concern arose that the lift-cover could be accidentally dislodged by the occupant's motions inside the vehicle, leaving the user unrestrained in an accident.
In 1965, General Motors Corporation employee, Robert C. Fisher designed a buckle which operated similarly as the lift-cover buckle, but substituted a protected button on the side of the buckle for the lift-cover. This was the first major "side-release" or "top-release" style buckle used on American vehicles. The spring-loaded button would cause the pawl to span into the aperture when the tongue was fully inserted all of the way into the buckle. When the occupant wanted to disengage the tongue and buckle, (s)he would press the button and the pawl with be pushed out of the tongue's aperture, permitting separation of the tongue and buckle. The first of Fisher's designs was patented in 1965, and was called the RCF-65 ("RCF" standing for Robert C. Fisher) or "Maxi-Buckle."
In 1967, Fisher patented a smaller side-release buckle which operated identically to the RCF-65, which differed from the "Maxi-Buckle" only in respect to its miniaturization. This buckle became known as the "RCF-67" side-release buckle (also known as the Type I buckle in General Motors Vehicles). It remains the most numerous buckle installed in American vehicles to date. At the time of its initial conception, the RCF-67 was lightweight, simple in design, easy to manufacture, had few moving parts, was fairly durable, and therefore was relatively inexpensive to manufacture. It therefore became immediately popular with American automakers whom the government involuntarily compelled to make seat belts mandatory equipment in U.S. cars beginning in 1968.
In the early 1980's the American automakers and their buckle suppliers began a campaign to develop a set belt buckle with a tongue eject feature and a release push button on the end of the buckle, rather than on the side or top.
The initial generation of these tongue-eject feature buckles were side-release buckles. The first of these tongue-eject buckles used in production was manufactured by Hamill, a Division of Firestone (now TRW Vehicle Safety Systems) and was used as early as 1973 and 1974 Ford vehicles. Called a "diecast" buckle, the 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." This is discussed in further detail below. After two years, Ford went back to the RCF-67 solely to save money on the production costs of the buckle.
However, in the early 1980's both Ford and General Motors once again directed their buckle suppliers to develop a new end-release buckle with a tongue eject feature. In the late 1980's the Ford Taurus and Lincoln Sable utilized side-release buckles with tongue eject features, as did the Ford Probe. At the same time, TRW VSSI (which had purchased Hammill from Firestone several years earlier) developed a buckle with a German Company called REPA, which was the first of the major "end-release" tongue-eject feature buckles ultimately to be developed for use in the United States.
The REPA end-release buckle had the release button placed on the end of the buckle (next to the insertion point of the tongue), instead of on the top or side of the buckle. The tongue-eject feature prevented false latching, while locating he release button on the end of the buckle prevented a side-load from inadvertently causing the release button to be activated, thus also preventing inertial unlatching, as discussed below.
TRW VSSI and Allied Signal both developed end-release buckles for use in Ford and GM vehicles in the late 1980s. Today, the end-release buckles is the predominant buckle sold in the United States, and the number of new vehicles being equipped with RCF-67 buckles continues to diminish.
Outdated Buckle Technology are Resulting in Safety Defects
Despite numerous advances in passive restraint systems over the past two decades, surprisingly the FMVSS and industry standards governing the manufacture of seat belts and buckles have essentially remained the same to date. Moreover, little effort has been made by the American automakers to improve the designs for seat belt buckles used in American automobiles during that time period. The government's watchdog agency, NHTSA, further has not only done little to improve these designs, but has actively resisted proposed changes which would make these buckles safer. Meanwhile, advanced technologies available which would dramatically improve the safety of these buckle systems have been largely ignored.
As a result, despite the recent trend toward equipping all passenger vehicles sold in the United States with end-release buckles, there remain literally billions of RCF-67/Type I buckles in U.S. vehicles still on the road today. As explained in the above section, these buckles represent an outdated buckle-latching technology designed in the 1960's, and continue to possess serious seat belt defects of which most Americans are largely unaware (e.g. false and inertial unlatching), until a serious accident occurs.
As a direct consequence, over the past twenty-five years, thousands of Americans who made a conscious effort to put their seat belts on have been killed or seriously injured during auto accidents when their seat belt buckles have become suddenly unlatched. More disturbingly, evidence obtained by attorneys representing these injured persons reveals that the auto industry has been well aware of these buckle unlatching-related casualties, and have suppressed them from the public and the U.S. Government in order to avoid the massive expense of forced recalls and to save money on the manufacturing costs of their vehicles. These buckle unlatching defects generally fall into two categories: false latching and inertial unlatching.
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